The last week saw some frenetic activity in the online space – a few events that are not just going to cause a shift in the way we search and share online, but could possibly impact the direction in which the web develops henceforth. These are very very interesting developments, and not just from a technology standpoint. Apparently, if we go by this, our brain is hard-wiring us to love Google, Twitter and texting. That will change the way we evolve as a species. But meanwhile…
Facebook began the week by acquiring Friendfeed (FB, FF – BFF), something I’d hoped that Twitter would do. For those not familiar with the service, its a neat aggregator of most of your activities online (blogs, twitter, facebook, delicious, flickr, YouTube…) and allows others to comment, share, like, search. Yes, most of those features that Facebook has been adding have been lifted from Friendfeed. For several reasons, the service, though extremely useful, has remained geeky.
The integration is bound to be tricky. While Friendfeed is used mostly as an aggregator (though some publish content exclusively there), Facebook thrives on ‘original’ content. Also, there are features on FF that don’t have a parallel on FB, and perhaps users too. I have different user names on both places, and there are very few who are friends of mine on both networks, and for a reason. I wouldn’t want to import my network on FF to FB. Also, I don’t import all of my content on FB. In many ways FF was my ‘private’ aggregator, a place where I could aggregate without making it too public. Adapting that on FB would require a lot of settings work. FF’s stream and its approach to updates is also different from FB. So it is quite possible that integration will not happen. But the Friendfeed ‘brain bank’ – people who had earlier made GMail, co-founded Google Maps, is unquestionably an asset, and one part of me won’t mind the fact that the acquisition will perhaps ensure that the innovations will reach a wider audience, and perhaps speed up the learning curve of casual social media users. The other part hopes that they will leave this version of FF intact too, even if it is as FB Labs.
Facebook’s ‘Lite’ also caused a stir, as several users saw an announcement that they were the chosen ones to test it out, though it turned out to be an accident, but that meant that all of us got to see a preview. It turns out to be a lighter, faster-loading version of Facebook, designed to give new users (especially from countries with lesser broadband access) a simple experience to begin with.
Facebook also launched real time search around the same time, and the ability to search shared (friends and public shared) news feeds (of the past 30 days) – status updates, photos, links, updates, Fan pages, with the option of filters, is quite a huge step. In many ways, FB is ‘forcing’ people to be more public to derive the maximum advantage out of the service. As Steve Rubel correctly points out, it has major implications on our consumption of content, making us ‘source agnostic’, which we are already, to a certain extent. Also, as he mentions, the impact of Facebook Connect in this equation means that the net is cast wider. The important factor in this, and the reason why i feel Google needs to take a long hard look at this is because there is a people filter here, in addition to the algorithm – news feeds of friends, people who have chosen to share their FB content publicly, means that it works as a kind of endorsement, a personally tested good source. That might potentially be better than Google’s spiders. I am not even bringing Twitter Search into the equation because if FB uses FF correctly and gets a majority of Twitter users to get their tweets into FB (store all but dipslay selectively), then the uniqueness of Twitter Search is gone. Besides FB has a much larger user base anyway.
Yes, Google is watching, flexing its muscles, and developing a few new ones too. On the day that Facebook dropped its big news, Google also unveiled the next generation of its own search – Caffeine. According to them, “It’s the first step in a process that will let us push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions.” More than an upgrade, it seems like completely new architecture, and will change the way Google indexes pages, and these changes also include real-time. Meanwhile, its also playing with new forms of product ads.
Google is also getting a bot more serious about ‘social’, and that is perhaps the reason behind iGoogle getting a facelift with 18 new widgets on the homepage. I’m not too much of a user of this service, but according to RWW, Google is slowly unleashing the services built on OpenSocial, and trying to make iGoogle the hub of a user’s Google activities, and sigh, there’s quite a lot of them. There are Facebook like update feeds (of friends), a share-able To Do gadget, a Scrabble gadget (hmm, that’s appealing) among other things. But the integration is not complete as shown by the YouTube widget and the absence of a Reader widget. But as I always say, the potential, if they actually manage to integrate all of this, and then add Wave features on top of it, is scary. But perhaps (since the social graph – i.e. who sees your comments and shares, is different) iGoogle is not meant to be connected with others.
The last announcement from Google was on the subject of Reader. In addition to the recent social developments, now reader items can be shared easily to other networks including Twitter, Facebook, Digg, MySpace, Blogger etc. Also, some tweaks in the ‘Mark all as read’ feature make it a lot more useful now. You can read the details here. But hey, Google, how about bringing Reader closer to real time?
Meanwhile, in the midst of these killer shark wars, the ‘whale’ boys have their own bogeymen. In addition to the wave of DSoS attacks, and the fact that Facebook grew twice as fast in July, the Gartner Hype Cycle white paper for 2009, has stated that microblogging has tipped over the peak and are about to enter the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. But I am not sure I agree with that. Microblogging, as Seth Godin once stated (about Twitter) is a protocol (nailed it brilliantly!!), what gets transmitted across it is a variable. Its news and links now, and who knows, a smart user/set of users might figure out something else tomorrow that would cause yet another disruption. Perhaps Gartner meant it only in the current context of usage. Twitter has just announced phase one of Project Retweet, which is aimed at changing the way the format of RT works and looks. While it does pose some inconvenience – we are used to the current RT @ format and will perhaps take some time to get used to seeing just the original tweet with a small ‘RT by’ (reminds me of Friendfeed’s ‘Like’), I am hoping that the open API means the developers will deliver to us some useful stuff (Retweets by/to me, of my tweets timelines, the lessening of clutter, as Mashable points out) But honestly, these seem to be small efforts when compared to those of Google and FB.
Interesting indeed. Rather than conspicuous face offs, Facebook and Google are warily circling each other, and launching and tweaking services that test out each others’ stranglehold on areas. An elaborate game of chess, that doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. Stalemate? Though it could be argued that there is space for both, I am inclined to think that the margin of advantages between the leader and the second best will be very high. The battle is for understanding consumer intent and making a revenue stream out of it. Google did that without much competition with search, until specific competition (Bing), real time and social media made threatening noises. Facebook’s appeal was on both those fronts, and now Google is making advances there. But Google is rich and now even has a browser with which it can define the starting point and direction of a user’s web experience, while Facebook revenues are still iffy. Facebook users have shared so much of content inside the ‘walled garden’ that it’ll be difficult to get out even if they desire. Not that Google is an angel on that count. (You must see this hilarious Onion video – Google’s opt out village) And now with Friendfeed, FB can lay its hands on Google content too – YouTube, Blogger etc can all be pulled into Facebook. But if they rub users the wrong way while trying to accelerate revenues, one can never say.
What would I like to see? Microsoft buying out Facebook. Perhaps then, we’ll have a fight that’s really too difficult to call.
until next time, which service is your BFF?
Bonus Read: John Borthwick’s ‘The rise of social distribution networks‘.