Facebook goes River of News

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For a few people who are obsessed with the way content flows from creator to consumer (to use a food metaphor), today is a rather interesting day. It’s the day when a concept that started out being called an RSS news reader — and specifically, a concept called “River of News” — goes as mainstream as anything can go in contemporary culture — the concept became the default front page a user sees when logging onto Facebook. Today, however, few people will use the term RSS news reader to describe what’s taking place. And “River of News” will not be discussed — unless it’s by people who like to argue over such things.

Today, the “news” will be about how outraged some people are going be that Facebook has its second new re-design of the year. (I haven’t seen the “outrage” stories yet, I’m just guessing based on previous coverage of any time anyone changes anything.)

More on the re-design in a minute, but first let me say something that needs to be noted: What Vint Cerf is to the Internet or Tim Berners Lee is to the World Wide Web, Dave Winer is to content “feeds.” (And please, before you start telling me that feeds have been around since 19-whatever, I’ll agree that feeds have been around since cave drawings — I’m talking here about feeds that depend on a contemporary conceptualized approach that utilizes XML protocols and standards (i.e., RSS, but not just RSS), APIs and other means to power all sorts of content syndication.)

Let me be clear: Just as I wouldn’t say Vint Cerf or Tim Berners Lee are to be credited with (or blamed) for what people have done with news feeds and the River of News concept (i.e., the ways in which it has been bastardized or attempts to “commercialize” it), I wouldn’t say Dave Winer should be credited with (or blamed) for how “feeds” are used today.

What I’m saying is this: When I look at the redesign of Facebook, I see Dave’s influence all over it, from permalinks, attached media files, to the entire concept of having content from lots of different sources flow into one “reader.” (Again, please, don’t jump in with the “there were newsreaders before RSS came along — that’s another argument for another post.)

Anything good about the new Facebook news feed, I’ll credit Dave. Anything bad, I’ll blame others.

Okay, here’s some other thoughts on the re-design of Facebook:

The last “re-design” took place earlier this year and at the time, I wrote a post called, “Users are great for helping you tweak products, but don’t ask when you want break through ideas.” At the bottom of this post, I’ve am re-posting that in full, as it’s as applicable today as it was then.

First, however, I want to review a timeline for those reading this who don’t obsess over such things (which, I hope, is most of you):

1. The FaceBook redesign of March 22 was a direct rip-off of inspired by the service FriendFeed. (FriendFeed aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses and streams it into one nice flow: See my FriendFeed page for an example, or look at the widget over in the righ-hand column to see the most recent “gestures” of mine it has picked up.)

2. On August 10, FaceBook acqhired FriendFeed and I wrote, “Facebook needs the people they’ve acqhired via the acquisition of FriendFeed. Whether they’ll actually listen is another story.”

3. On October 23, the new FriendFeed people stage a coup and take over the Newsfeed page (which is the default “front page” for users).


RexBlog ReRun

Users are great for helping you tweak products,
but don’t ask when you want break through ideas

(Originally posted on March 22.)

Robert Scoble has jumped into the debate over the new interface design of Facebook. Scoble’s piece expresses an insight I believe is too often missed by those who confuse the concept of “pleasing the user” with “creating breakthrough ideas.” In his post, Scoble does a tremendous job of describing why “like” is the breakthrough idea that is the foundation of the new Facebook design. Of course, the whole “like” idea is not Facebook’s idea (more on this later), but making “like” and “comment” central to the idea of what Facebook is is (to quote a former President).

Scoble (and I) are fans of Kathy Sierra, creator of O’Reilly’s Head First book series and a presenter extraordinaire. Over the years, in evangelizing what software developers need to do to create “passionate users,” she has addressed the need to create “breakthrough ideas” instead of merely better products. Last week in Austin, I was able to catch Kathy presenting to 1,500 of her fans and was reminded once more of how she can explain in a polite, yet explicit way, that focus groups and user research has its place, but that place is not in helping you design great software. It helps you tweak software, she says, but it’s no help when you want to create breakthrough ideas.

Another incredible discussion thread that is bouncing around the tech blogosphere this week about “research-driven design decisions” vs. “break through ideas” was started with this essay by Douglas Bowman, in which he announced his departure as the lead visual designer at Google. Design, of course, is merely one aspect of breakthrough ideas, however, the process of design at Google, as Bowman describes it (and as revealed in recent profiles of Marissa Mayer), seems obsessed with research into iterative changes (as in, what shade of blue gets more clicks) rather than creating something that changes everything. Bowman admits (who wouldn’t?) it’s hard to question anything Google does, as they have the users and money to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. However, as someone who uses Google products to the point of considering turning everything over to them (heck, even moving this blog to Blogger.com), I’m more impressed by their ability to make products solid and simple than with their ability to come up with anything new. (And, frankly, to me making web applications solid and simple is a breakthrough idea.)

I say all this to emphasize that I agree with Scoble: What Facebook is doing is not necessarily original, but it is building on a foundation they have that will help create the opportunity for breakthrough ideas. While most of the analysis I’ve read has compared the new Facebook design to Twitter, I believe that comparison is wrong. To me, it seems obvious the benchmark for “the new Facebook design” is FriendFeed. (As those who’ve made it this far likely know, FriendFeed was created by some Google alumni and is one of many services — but the most popular among the A-List geeks — that aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses (i.e., sharing a photo via Flickr, favoring a video on YouTube, reviewing a restaurant on Yelp). If you’re reading this on my blog (vs. via an RSS reader or on Facebook), over on the right you can see a sidebar box (widget) that displays the headlines from my FriendFeed account, something I call jokingly, “The River of Rex.”

While the FriendFeed creators seemed purposeful in not trying to replicate or compete head-on with Facebook (Exhibit #1: The service has no user profile page), they obviously served as a proof of concepts that didn’t go unnoticed by Zuckerberg & Co. Concept #1: You don’t need lots of complicated “invite and display” applications to get users to aggregate every social media thing they do. Concept #2: Those “like” and “comment” fields make every tidbit of content a launchpad for conversation and insight.

Unlike past attempts by Facebook to change the service in ways that violated principles of trust or privacy, I believe the new design will actually be of great benefit to Facebook users — after they get over the whinning. So put me in the 5% group: I like the new Facebook design. I believe it serves the user (rather than screws them like the previous changes). In fact, I like it a lot.

However, I think soon the word “like” will be as confusing as the word “friend” is today.

The importance of simplicity

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Boy, did I get this one wrong. When I first read about an all-star group of former Googlers getting together to create what sounded like yet another RSS newsreader/lifestreaming/social-media aggregation thing — in new clothes — I was completely unimpressed. What made their effort seem like a lock on being a failure was that it was being revealed in a New York Times article before launch. See, I have this theory that stories in the New York Times about something being “worked on” is an early-warning sign of likely failure. Why? Because in most cases, early on, a new venture benefits from obscurity. (Another post for another day.)

And so, the first I ever wrote on this blog about FriendFeed.com, on October 1, 2007, I was about as negative as I’ve ever been about anything. I was, in fact, embarrassingly negative.

The fact that I may have been correct about the core of what I wrote: that hacking RSS feeds into something like Google Reader can accomplish all that a “life stream” aggregator can do (it still can and Google Reader is trying to make it happen) didn’t matter.

My post was a rookie mistake I warn people not to make all the time: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. (Yet another post for another day.)

I’m happy to say that once the “execution” of FriendFeed appeared, I recognized that the execution was much different than the New York Times “preview.” I started using FriendFeed immediately. In March, 2008, Silicon Valley blogger (he does other things, as well) Louis Gray wrote this post about FriendFeed in which he observed that “elite bloggers were joining FriendFeed in droves.” I must admit, I was a little suspect of Louis’s post as he included me on a list of something “elite.”

However, by then, I’d come to appreciate how much the experience and obvious brilliance of the FriendFeed team was playing in their execution of a product that made it simple for people who are immersed in social media to organize and follow so much “stuff.” Instead of trying to become another Twitter or Facebook, FriendFeed’s creators have made using those other services more simple. And while they weren’t the first ones to attempt to do it, their engineering prowess and user-interface expertise was constantly on display.

So much so that by the time Facebook blatantly ripped off FriendFeed’s user-interface in its redesign (the one that everyone hated), I wrote this:

“To me, it seems obvious the benchmark for “the new Facebook design” is FriendFeed.,,While the FriendFeed creators seemed purposeful in not trying to replicate or compete head-on with Facebook (Exhibit #1: The service has no user profile page), they obviously served as a proof of concepts that didn’t go unnoticed by Zuckerberg & Co. Concept #1: You don’t need lots of complicated “invite and display” applications to get users to aggregate every social media thing they do. Concept #2: Those “like” and “comment” fields make every tidbit of content a launchpad for conversation and insight. Unlike past attempts by Facebook to change the service in ways that violated principles of trust or privacy, I believe the new design will actually be of great benefit to Facebook users — after they get over the whinning. So put me in the 5% group: I like the new Facebook design. I believe it serves the user (rather than screws them like the previous changes). In fact, I like it a lot.

Facebook needs the people they’ve acqhired via the acquisition of FriendFeed.

Whether they’ll actually listen is another story.

Bonus: Someone stayed up late to do this instant “Hitler Parody” (these never get old) regarding the Facebook-Friendfeed deal. Major, major geek humor:


Drive-by thoughts on Twitter, Grammys and Alison Krauss

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(Credit: Josh Penland via
Flickr & Creative Commons.)

1. Twitter and real-time events: I’ve blogged before how Twitter can transform any real-time TV broadcast into a “community event.” I’ve seen this on broadcasts of major sporting events, political debates or, most dramatically, the recent inauguration. Having a “back channel” conversation is something that is old-hat to “techies” who have long used platforms like Internet Relay Chat (IRC), but it’s just now creeping out to a mainstream audience. Unless Twitter incorporates some type of “groups” into its platform, the casual user of Twitter will have no idea how to “tune into” an event. [At this point, the “easiest” way to follow a specific topic — and this is, at best, a hack — is to figure out what hashtag (#) people are using to discuss it (i.e., #Grammys or #bushfire) and go to Search.Twitter.com and search for the term (without using the hashtag).] While there are an endless number of third-party services that can help one set up the equivalent of a Twitter group, this is one feature that needs to be baked into the platform.* What last night’s Grammys displayed, however, is what happens when a TV network decides that a national event is not important enough to air real-time nationally. Those watching the Grammys on eastern time were fire-hosing the event two hours before it was being broadcast on a delayed basis in the West. I didn’t realize what was taking place until two hours later, tweets started to sound like they were looping. In the future, the TV networks are going to have to figure that one out — or “the people” will. (I’ve never real-time tweeeted a TV drama, but I guess the same issues exist among fans of Lost, 24, etc. — the “spoiler” possibilities are obvious.)

2. Alison Krauss: I’ll be honest. I’m typically not a Grammys watcher, but got sucked in last night because of the hilarious commentary taking place on Twitter. Hint: Lots of Twitter users love tweeting about how much they hate the Grammys, which makes for some entertaining tweets. However, what I’ve noticed when I do tune is makes me think that voting is dominated by record labels and is typically skewed toward artists with the most mainstream appeal (Twitter users aren’t always “mainstream,” thus the Grammys-bashing). The exception to that rule (and this is a completely personal and uninformed or researched opinion) seems to be country music, where many of the big awards go to artists and projects that are obscure to mainstream radio-listening commercial-country music fans, but may appeal to “music people.” In other words, there seems to be a voting bloc outside of the Nashville “business” that skews the country Grammys towards edgier country projects, i.e., anything with historic recordings of Johnny Cash. (Personally, I like that.) Last night, however, the voting dynamic seemed to swing in the other direction, benefiting my favorite Nashville artist, Alison Krauss. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant won several Grammys in “non-Nashville” categories due (and this is where I’m guessing) to a bloc of Nashville votes vs. a split in voting by those in New York and LA. I’m sure there were many Grammy viewers wondering who exactly Alison Krauss is, not recognizing that she has now won career 26, moving ahead of Stevie Wonder and #2 on the all-time most Grammy-winning singer list.** (Disclosure: My wife knows I’m in love with Alison Krauss even though I’ve never met her except one time when I blathered something about her being my biggest fan when I was standing next to her at a small Nashville retail store.)

*During the Inauguration, CNN and Facebook provided a glimpse into what an integrated approach to communal real-time event-watching can be when they provided a means for Facebook users to have a one-screen interface for viewing the event and to engage in a text-based conversation taking place among their Facebook friends. As Facebook provides a means to categorize “friends” using different “lists,” the concept of “groups” is well established. Also, I believe one of the reasons FriendFeed has caught on among many early adopters is their inclusion of many logical approaches to the management of specific topics and the the ability to categorize different groups of “friends.”

**The issue of “career” Grammys needs to be cleared up by others. Information on Wikipedia is not definitive (and, frankly, in this case, has to be flat-out wrong as there are competing “facts” related to the number of Grammys she’s received. Uncontested facts: The #1 all-time Grammy winner is the producer Sir Georg Solt. (My number of 26 comes from the following: On her website, it lists 21 Grammys before last night, and last night, she won five more.

A short comment on comments, A rambling essay on why all this stuff fascinates me

A comment on comments: Yesterday, I wrote the following on Twitter:

“FriendFeed, Twitter, Seesmic et al, are pointing in the direction of something. They aren’t the destination.”

Because everything I post on Twitter (and other places) is mirrored on FriendFeed, the “tweet” appeared there at the same time.

If you look at the comments following that FriendFeed post, you’ll note that my friend (and I don’t mean that just because we said so on FaceBook) Dave Winer commented that he, “Totally agree(d) with this.”

Because so many people have learned that it’s important to listen to Dave (even when they disagree with him) his FriendFeed comment about my “tweet” led to a robust disussion that still lingers 17 hours later.

Which leads me to the topic of comments: A small group of the people who read this blog are currently obsessed with trying to understand where “comments” fit into conversational media. Even those of us who think we at least have a grasp of social media — who know its role in de-centralizing “content” — are fascinated (and some, upset) that comments on our blogs are now becoming de-centralized.

It fascinates me that some bloggers, who more often than not, are using their blog to comment on items they read elsewhere, are becoming upset that comments about their posts are taking place elsewhere.

As for me, I love that comments are finally being recognized as the treasure they are.

I don’t care where the conversation takes place. I want to understand it and embrace it.

Why I find all of this fascinating: You know that kid who loves tearing apart physical things to understand how they work. The one who can actually put the stuff he or she tears apart back together again. “She should be an engineer when she grows up,” people will say about that kid.

I wasn’t that kid.

But looking back, I was obsessed with tearing apart virtual things to understand how they work. I was never interested in how my television worked, but I was extremely curious about how programs were written and produced. I was never really that interested in printing presses, but I can’t remember a time I didn’t wonder about how reporters gathered news and editorial decisions were made. I was also fascinated with what today I’d call group dynamics and how teams and clubs and cliques came together and grew or fell apart. I was an organizer of groups and a conversation “moderator” decades before I even realized that groups and conversation need to be organized and moderated. I was fascinated with why fans become fans and what “loyalty” is all about. I was that kid.

For almost 20 years (back to the CompuServe days) the online world has provided me (and many others like me) with an amazing laboratory in which we get to tear apart the flow of information and the creation of conversation and community in an attempt to understand how they work. For some of us, that’s like being a kid in a, well, info-candy shop.

I’ll admit. I’m not merely doing this for fun. I have a business that allows me to apply what I learn in this laboratory to improve our internal conversations and community — and to incorporate what we learn into improving and enhancing the products and services we sell. But, I think it’s also apparent that I still have a child-like curiousity about the ways in which people use technology to share with one-another and to spread information — and create community.

The most important thing I’ve learned is this: It’s not about the technology. I know so many people who are “afraid” of something because they think it’s “technology.” Frankly, technology developers don’t help things by creating products that are driven by features and functions than by ease-of-use. It still amazes me that after 30 years, so many professional marketers don’t understand why Apple has a cult following. “Cool” is what marketers think Apple is all about. “Not corporate” perhaps, you know, that I’m a Mac, I’m a PC thing, perhaps. As a Mac-tard since 1984, I’ll tell you why Apple has a cult following. They make products for people who don’t give a rip about technology. They make products for users. And even though they don’t say it anymore, their products are for the “rest of us” who don’t really care how the technology works, we just want the technology to disappear so we can listen, read, write, create, share, buy, sell, etc.

I’m obsessed with what’s taking place here. But I’m obsessed as a user and “content” creator and “community” builder and participant.

That’s why I’m such a geek.

[Photo: cocoen via Flickr.]