April 06, 2009

FriendFeed Reloads With Real-Time At Its Core

FriendFeed's rise through 2008 was one of the bigger successes in the Silicon Valley startup space in what was a difficult year for practically every one else not named Twitter or Facebook (and both those companies had their challenges). But even while a growing number of enthusiastic users flocked to the site, it too had growing pains. Many people, including me, cited the interface as too complicated for average users, and remain concerned about how it can cement itself a central role in the extremely competitive social networking and information discovery sphere.

Today, the site relaunched with a goal of simplifying the aggregation and sharing service and focusing on the real-time Web. The new interface constantly loads in new updates from your feeds and those from all those you follow, much like TweetDeck for Twitter - becoming an information firehose.

The New FriendFeed Interface - In Beta

The Same Information - In the Old Version

In a presentation held at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California on Thursday evening, company co-founder Bret Taylor explained that the product, introduced in October of 2007, had seen growth akin to "starting a one bedroom house and adding a bunch of wings, rather than a real nice house," following the addition of a robust search engine, and an array of features and customization. The result was something that many existing users adored, but others found intimidating. So the small company went back to the drawing board - watching how customers used the product and looking to enhance the site to become a better vehicle for discussions with friends.

My New FriendFeed Profile

The result is a brand new, revamped site, in beta, that defaults to real-time updates in every part of the interface - with some long-awaited key additions, including the launch of direct messages, similar to those on Twitter, short user profiles for every account, and significant customization and filters that can help visitors find the content they're looking for more easily. Users can also hide that which they don't want to see - including the ability to block specific users, or save keyword searches (including vanity searches).

FriendFeed's direct messages share some similarities with those on Twitter, in that you can only send notes to those who are following you, but they differ in that you can send direct messages to more than one user at a time, and can even include photos. But once you've started a thread via direct message, you can't add another person to the thread.

While direct messages and profiles were much-requested from users over the last 18 months, they are merely window dressing on top of the core architectural changes that are introduced in this morning's release. Bret and Paul Buchheit said on Thursday that there is a major move toward real time communication and sharing, and that FriendFeed expected to coexist alongside other players, like Twitter and Facebook, who have gained the lions' share of visibility in the social networking space of late.

"When something is this new, it can be hard to explain," Paul said. "Like blogging or anything else, there will be multiple services, and that's where this medium will be headed. We will be one of the more significant providers."

The company, which continues to be focused on building a great product, rather than be "distracted" by monetization talks (their word, not mine), also saw the service's user interface completely retooled, replacing a spartan grey text on white background UI seen on the site to date with more color, calling out lists of friends and subscriptions in dedicated floating boxes on the right side of the page. And while that may seem a small change, no interface edits are taken lightly, we were told Thursday.

"Everyone here (At FriendFeed) really cares about UI," said Bret. "We are aware of the shortcomings of the old interface, and it's fun to rethink the product around the usage patterns. That's how we feel now, and we are ready to launch it."

In the new UI, gone is the focus on the dozens of service icons that littered the screen, highlighting the Google Readers and SmugMugs and YouTubes of the world. In their place, instead there is more emphasis on who shared it, as the users' avatars are prominently featured (like on Twitter), with the accompanying update. You can see the service still, but it becomes less of the story. And of course, that's absolutely intentional.

"Service icons have been replaced with profile pictures, to make it simpler," Bret said. "People would see thousands of icons they hadn't seen before. Lost would be the detail of what friends had shared the item."

Subscribing to Duncan Riley's Comments on FriendFeed

The new FriendFeed beta comes with many other smaller changes under the hood. Instead of relying on FFHolic for user statistics, FriendFeed, like Twitter, now shows the number of people who you follow, as well as the number who follow you. Also showing are the total number of likes and comments you have made on the service since you signed up. And if you look at any other user's profile, you can click on their comments and choose to "follow" their comments, just like any other user. Should you be crazy, like me, you could add comments from some of your friends into a dedicated "filter" or list. I call my collection "Top Comments". And your own discussion threads are also tracked in their own feed, called "My discussions".

Tracking My Own Discussions on FriendFeed

The Subscriptions section also watches your own activity and selects those users with whom you most frequently engage. If you are a frequent visitor of Mona Nomura's feed, she might be listed there, or if you comment with Robert or Alex Scoble, they will be there. And if you think that's not who you want displayed, click Edit next to Subscriptions and select others who you follow.

But if you follow a ton of folks, be prepared for an onslaught of information. If people thought FriendFeed delivered a ton of information before, just wait until you see the beta. The realtime flow means an item might move lower in the page while you're still reading it. You might click like on the wrong item. And you probably aren't going to get the chance to read everything. That's why there is a pause button at the top. You might find yourself hitting pause just to catch a breath. But if you're an information junkie, there's really no better source.