Saturday, April 19, 2008

One Place for Your Many Online Lives

One Place for Your Many Online Lives

One Place for Your Many Online Lives

FriendFeed is tearing down the walls between Web haunts such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc.

Attention, attention: The latest tech darling has arrived, and it goes by the name of FriendFeed. Silicon Valley is buzzing about the seven-month-old startup, which offers a promising if somewhat messy new Internet service. Part of the interest comes from the blue-ribbon pedigrees of its founders, including Google (GOOG) alums Paul Buchheit and Bret Taylor, who honchoed Gmail and Google Maps.

But just as much of the hullabaloo stems from how the founders are addressing a growing issue online: the balkanization of the Web. People are socializing on networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace (NWS) and sharing pictures and videos on Web sites including Flickr (YHOO) and YouTube (GOOG). But all these activities have been walled off from one another, like separate digital worlds. To keep track of friends and colleagues, you have to log in and out of different services constantly.


FriendFeed is one of the first major efforts to break down these walls. With the startup's service, subscribers can pull together on one Web page everything their friends and colleagues are doing on more than 30 Web sites. The goal is to organize the Web's information in valuable ways, a bit like Google does. But instead of using search, FriendFeed uses people you know to uncover valuable information. To find movie recommendations or news items or provocative ideas, you can tap into the wisdom of friends. "Our thesis was that the best filter for information is people you know," says Buchheit.

The FriendFeed service looks a bit chaotic at first. After logging in, a subscriber sees a Web page with a steady stream of items from people he has signed up to follow scrolling down the screen. A news item on the Chicago Cubs. Photos from a trip in Costa Rica. A blog post about bug-eating bats. Depending on how many people you follow, you can see dozens or even hundreds of items each hour.

But FriendFeed isn't passive. Each subscriber can search, sort, or comment on the information in his feed. Thinking about seeing the movie 10,000 BC? Do a quick search on FriendFeed and you may find two colleagues who advise you not to bother. Want creative vacation ideas? Your friends may have suggestions. And if someone posts a link to a New York Times article on Senator Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign, you can start a debate about his chances in the election among your friends. "We tried to map the natural thing that happens in real life, like when someone mentions an interesting TV show at a dinner party," says Buchheit.

The founders plan to sell advertising on the site, which is free to subscribers. They raised $5 million in venture money in February, so they have enough cash for operations in the near term.

Tech experts see a great deal of potential in the effort. "With the democratization of the Web, everyone is creating information, but what you want is a way to consolidate that information in an intelligent way," says Pradeep K. Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering.

FriendFeed is developing filters and other tools to give subscribers more control over the information they get on the site. Subscribers now sometimes feel they're being deluged. "When Friendfeed came on the scene, it was like a clean slate," says Jevon MacDonald, a Toronto tech consultant who uses the service. "But then it became overwhelming to me. It is pretty obvious that it's in its infancy."

FriendFeed will have plenty of competition. Facebook offers a similar service where people post updates of what they're doing on the site that could be expanded to include information from other sites. Google is working on ways to share information across Web sites and is pushing for industrywide standards so that data from one site can be easily transferred to another. "The important thing for Google is we want to make the Web better by making it more social," says Kevin Marks, developer advocate at Google. "But the social pieces should be part of the Web, not part of separate sites."

FriendFeed's founders are Silicon Valley standouts. Buchheit joined Google in 1999 and is credited with coming up with the company's famous "Don't Be Evil" motto. He met Sanjeev Singh, another co-founder, when the two of them worked together on creating Gmail.

Taylor and Jim Norris, the other two co-founders, joined Google in 2003 after studying computer science at Stanford University. The two helped come up with Google Maps while tinkering with the search service for local businesses and addresses. The four teamed up last year to work on FriendFeed, which launched publicly in February.

For the four young men, all in their late twenties or early thirties, there's a clear challenge ahead. There's been an explosion in user-generated content over the past five years, and nothing, including Google's powerful search engine, has been able to help people easily find the information they want on social networks. They hope to create a new kind of Google for the next stage of the Internet. "There hasn't been a scalable way of finding the interesting stuff," says Taylor. "There are lots of tools to help me publish that content, but few to help me find the relevant information."

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