Ask me what my mother is doing right now and I couldn’t tell you. Or what my best friend has been up to lately…no idea. But with a quick look at my computer screen, I can see what a staggering number of people I barely know are doing right now, 10 minutes ago, or last night. What they are reading, what they are posting and what they are commenting on — all in one place.
The service that gives me this kind of access into other people’s lives is a relatively new aggregation site called FriendFeed, which takes feeds of your activity on 35 different social networks and puts them all in one place.
“FriendFeed is this year’s Twitter.” That’s what lots of people are saying, meaning it’s becoming the preferred tool of the early adopter crowd and generating a lot of buzz. It seems to have a cult-like following, with bloggers singing its praises and touting its many advantages. Plus, FriendFeed is not alone as a social aggregator; there’s also Spokeo, Iminta and Plaxo Pulse, just to name a few.
After a lot of thought, I’ve come up with a few things that I think are cool about FriendFeed and social aggregators, and a few more which give me pause.
What’s Great About FriendFeed
1. It helps you avoid visiting multiple sites.
Before aggregation services like FriendFeed, one would have to visit multiple sites to follow the whole of a friend’s online activity. These services do the work for you, transmitting yours and your friends’ updates across a variety of sites and allowing for a more convenient way to know what someone’s been up to online. Though I’m not as obsessed with knowing everything everyone I know is doing all the time on every site they frequent, I’m sure this is considered a real benefit to those people who are.
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2. It helps you make sense of a ton of data.
When you’re interested in the activity of a variety of different people on many different sites, it’s hard to keep up with it all. Social aggregation lets you see a chronological stream of what your contacts have been doing, and also lends structure to your own online activities. Organizing information that is in essence disperse makes it easier to digest, and FriendFeed, when you get the hang of it, can make following online conversations such as comments on a blog post a lot easier. Plus, you can comment right on someone’s FriendFeed.
3. It helps you get to know people better.
Today’s web tools are designed to facilitate interaction between “friends” but in truth they are more useful for facilitating interaction between strangers (who later may or may not become friends). It’s often hard to tap into a connection with someone you don’t really know, and social networks — particularly ones that are built around an affinity for something like music or photography — are a shortcut to that type of connection. I like this song, so do you, therefore we have something in common. You marked my photograph as a favorite so I add you as a contact. And thus begins a strange relationship with a stranger.
Perhaps aggregation helps us get even closer. Instead of knowing just a couple of random details about someone’s life, you can piece it all together and have what you think is a full portrait of who this person really is. And perhaps the appeal of getting all that information about online friends and acquaintances in one place is that it mimics a real life, offline relationship. It’s just a theory, but in trying out FriendFeed, I can see how that might be attractive.
What Bothers Me About FriendFeed
Roughly a year ago, in a post here on MediaShift about oversharing information through social networks, I said:
Some of us may not realize it, but the bits and pieces of ourselves online paint a picture of who we are — a picture that is so clear one might question whether we aren’t letting too many strangers into our lives.
In that post, I was talking about someone — a person — taking the time to weave together all the public strands of our lives found on the various social networks we frequent. I wasn’t thinking of a service that does all the piecing together for you. Which brings me to my concerns about FriendFeed and similar sites:
1. It’s too personal.
Beyond the seemingly positive aspects of having our information in one place, some say that a centralized ‘data silo’ is a little unsettling and I have to agree. All of the online “you” in one place with little control over how it’s used is an uncomfortable thought. A couple of months ago I signed up for FriendFeed, used it once and hadn’t come back again until this week. At some point I guess I must have linked it to Facebook. So when I went into Facebook profile, I was rather surprised to see what showed up: everything I had said on Twitter in the last few days, every photo I had marked as a favorite on Flickr and every comment I had made on the site, everything I had bookmarked on de.licio.us, and every song I had listened to on my iPod.
It was kind of embarrassing, though I can’t put my finger on why. While I guess I knew what I was signing up for, seeing it all there together on my unattended Facebook profile was a bit disturbing. This information in bits and pieces, in the context of other people’s noise and spread out over various sites seemed fine, but this vivid stream of my online persona was a bit too much.
2. It’s fun, but it isn’t real interaction.
A lot of bloggers are talking about how FriendFeed facilitates interaction and conversation, and I can see the point, because conversations across a variety of networks come together in one place. But I can also see how this positive point could become a negative one. Why go out and interact with friends in the real world when you can interact with your online friends in every way imaginable all the time, without the baggage? There’s never a lull in the conversation, and there’s always something to talk about: a blog post, a photo, a video, etc.
Then there’s another problem that other bloggers seem to have identified: Is this real interaction anyway? Or just data being pushed out from different sources to a random group of subscribers? That’s hardly friendship by any normal definition of the word.
3. It’s information overload.
Just as RSS made it easy to get news, the same aggregation concept is working for social networks. But just as RSS helps to help cut through the noise, it inevitably creates more, and the same is bound to happen on FriendFeed. I log on and it’s too much for me — I feel overwhelmed. Our best efforts to keep up with others, thwarted by something designed to help us keep up with others. With FriendFeed, it seems we are looking for organization: of information, of relationships, of the various aspects of our own lives that make us who we are. Aggregation is organization and organization makes things easier, right? For me this particular form of organization makes things more difficult. (However, it is possible to “Hide” certain entries or people, though that takes a lot of work.)
While there are more reasons than the ones listed here to praise or pan FriendFeed, in conclusion, I wonder what the big deal is about. The picture that is painted of us on FriendFeed is both frighteningly complete and sorely lacking: lots of correct data about what we do but little information about who we are. The very existence of a service like this points to our need to make sense of multiple streams of data about ourselves and others, and perhaps even a need for that data to become something more personal. But in those attempts, there is a possibility of creating more chaos in the name of organization.
What do you think? Why do we choose to aggregate? Does aggregation help you get to know people better online? Are you comfortable with having all of your information in one place? Do social aggregators like FriendFeed make it easier or harder to take in information? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Image of FriendFeed video via Steve Garfield on Flickr