Twitter appears to have an unassailable lead in users and their resultant Follow clouds. Though Track is dead and IM is postponed indefinitely, the service has added a political track page with a company-selected keyword cluster around the political race. The result: a rapid flow of unmoderated comments with no social graph or conversational elements. As a commercial for Twitter’s dominant market share, it underlines both the potential and the uselessness of the product for its contributors. In other words, can I get you a pillow for your spot in our trunk….
Then FriendFeed comes along and seemingly duplicates this window into its stream, a much more constrained cloud divided into overlapping concepts called Friend lists and Rooms respectively. The new realtime feature gives you the same kind of auto-updating stream of comments, scoped to these two constructs. As Friendfeed co-founder Bret Taylor told today’s Gillmor Gang, anyone on Friendfeed can contribute to a public room or join a room to start a thread, as many did to the last debate conversation Wednesday night.
Or you deploy a live stream of a Friend list, where you decide whose comments you want to follow, or the generic full stream, or any group you configure. Friend lists harness earlier personalization features such as a Best of Day link, which in the case of a specific list presents 430 of the most Liked and commented upon threads of the people in that group. Jon Udell wondered whether you could manage lists via the API released a month or so ago, and Taylor confirmed read functionality but not necessarily subscription management (yet) was supported.
The realtime view and an embeddable version both support 100 entries going back, but Taylor acknowledged that a tool primarily designed to provide live-blogging functionality should make the whole stream available. He also announced that full API support for the underlying ong-polling that feeds the realtime stream will be available “next week”, allowing third-party services such as Twhirl to incorporate the functionality into their products. XMPP support has moved from a frequent request to “something we’re actively working on.”
As the debate unfolded Wednesday night, I found myself moving from the too-rapid flow of the Debate Room to my general Friendfeed aggregate stream, which was mostly focused on the debate as was Twitter and its related spawn. Managing that involved bouncing back and forth between Firefox with two pop-out windows of the room and friends streams, and the multi-window Twhirl application interface. Midway through the debate Twhirl seemed to fold, first with the Twitter feed and then with Identi.ca.
On the Gang, Taylor confirmed that the realtime streams were stable, save for one configuration bug quickly fixed that wasunrelated to the volume of data. But make no mistake about the significance of this evolutionary approach to the problem of scaling users up to challenge Twitter. Even with the relatively uncultivated cloud of current “friends” the quality of the main feed was already competitive with Twitter. Of course, that is helped by the fact that Friendfeed incorporates most of those same Twitter and Identi.ca feeds as part of its aggregated stream.
There, in a nutshell, is the opportunity for Friendfeed and threat for the incumbent. As Jon Udell noted on Twitter the night of the debate, it took about 6 seconds for a tweet to surface in the live stream. If Friendfeed can manage the thorny issues of keeping white listed access to API calls open while protecting the core business opportunities from being cannibalized by other services, there will be increased pressure on Twitter to unburden themselves of the constraints they so far have imposed around IM and Track.
The tortoise may be closing in on the hare. Where Twitter seems to stabilize by removing features, Friendfeed is gaining rapidly by carefully adding features that each in turn build on the preceding one. First Aggregation, then Rooms, Friend Lists, and now Realtime APIs. Friendfeed needs to improve its user acquisition functionality to harvest the fruits of the realtime conversations they are now making possible. Twhirl proves useful for following new people when they pop up in conversation, and the first service to integrate Follows and Track over realtime IM or an embeddable surrogate will quickly grab at least a strategic corner of this new information router console.