So, Facebook has acquired FriendFeed. But what does it mean? Well despite the rhetoric of some that this is a minor deal because FriendFeed’s audience was small compared to that of its acquirer Facebook, or even Twitter, this deal should actually have some wide-reaching implications for the future of how many of us use the web socially.
Talent And Features
Let’s be clear, from what all involved parties are saying, this was a talent acquisition. Facebook has no need to integrate the entire FriendFeed service into its site which has over 250 million users. Actually, it already has a FriendFeed, its News Feed. But as we’ve pointed out numerous times, Facebook’s News Feed was simply not as good as the social stream FriendFeed had created. So instead, what Facebook will do is integrate the best features of FriendFeed, with the help of the people who built them.
Actually, Facebook had already been basically doing that (whether on purpose or not), something which led me to write in my very first post for TechCrunch back in April (appropriately titled “You Will Be Using FriendFeed In The Future — But It May Be Called Facebook”) the following:
But I think it’s FriendFeed that Facebook should be more closely following [rather than Twitter], given what it wants to do with its service. That’s especially true when even more information starts coming into the site by way of Facebook Connect. Twitter has exploded in popularity because it’s so simple — but it’s far too simple for everything that Facebook want to do. But FriendFeed seems to be morphing into exactly what Facebook wants to be.
Given that FriendFeed co-founder Bret Taylor said that there had been talks between the two sides for a while, it would seem that Facebook understood that. The incredible speed at which FriendFeed was developing and deploying new features — features which Facebook should have — was too hard to ignore.
And why any of this matters is that an improved News Feed is what Facebook needs to hold off the challenge from the company that once spurned it, Twitter. Twitter is still growing fast, and its more-open nature is turning it into the social platform of choice, something which Facebook used to be.
Facebook has a great opportunity to be the web’s central hub thanks to its Facebook Connect product which not only allows users to sign into other sites with their Facebook IDs, but also brings data back into Facebook from all around the web. But as was evident after the last News Feed (and total site) redesign, it has been difficult for Facebook to figure out how to handle and best showcase all that social data coming into the site.
FriendFeed has been very good at that, albeit on a much smaller site. But it’s not like these FriendFeed guys are amateurs. Almost the entire team comes from Google, including co-founder Paul Buchheit who was integral in the building of a little service known as Gmail.
Speaking of Gmail, this is pure speculation, but what if once the News Feed has been updated, if Facebook decides to use Buchheit and co.’s services to build a better messaging system? MySpace just completely revamped their system, and Facebook’s is pretty poor.
Of course, one could also argue that with a killer social stream, it may negate the need for a revamping of the email system. After all, FriendFeed does messaging very well right now with its combination of public and private comments and posting.
One aspect that is small but hugely important for the social stream, is filtering. Facebook had been getting better at it with various groups you could place contacts into to sort your stream, but FriendFeed was again, much better.
Here’s a perfect example. When one of your contacts on Facebook posts and item that you don’t care to see, you have the option to hide it. But if they’re constantly posting the same type of item, you can only either hide them each time, or hide that entire user. With FriendFeed there were several more options, including hiding elements from just a certain source, as well as automatically unhiding items if a friend had “liked” it.
I could go on; let’s just say FriendFeed’s method is much, much better.
And Twitter? Yeah, they badly need filters, pronto.
Twitter Search has shown a glimpse of the power of being able to get at up-to-the-minute information in real-time. But again, FriendFeed does it better. Twitter search isn’t able to scan farther back then a couple weeks, but FriendFeed search scans the service’s entire history.
And FriendFeed search actually does update in real-time. This constant flow may annoy some users, but FriendFeed smartly implemented a system that pauses when you hover over one element. Twitter has been experimenting with real-time refreshing of search on its new widget, but the main search product still requires a manual refresh.
And Facebook search? Well, they finally rolled out a revamp of it today, after several weeks of testing. Previously, it was quite bad, scanning only static information. It’s better now, but still not at the level of FriendFeed search. Down the road, this acqusition should help that as well.
The Open Debate
But today’s acquisition also extends beyond that of Facebook’s services. A lot of current FriendFeed users are expressing displeasure with the move because they saw FriendFeed as a true bastion of hope for an open social stream versus Facebook’s closed method. While Facebook’s Chris Cox is saying the right things today about Facebook’s desire to be open, and there has been some progress, the process has been really slow. And plenty wonder if Facebook really wants to be open at all.
The same people also see Twitter as more open, but still relatively closed use of the social stream, because its APIs are limited. FriendFeed, which recently launched a new version of its own APIs had the respect of the developer community for their openness, if nothing else. Now, a lot of users are upset at the prospects of a very open service being lured behind a wall.
The Twitter Paradox
Something else that is interesting in all of this is just how reliant FriendFeed has been on Twitter as a source of its data. We saw this first hand the other day when Twitter went down (and cut off its APIs) due to the DDoS attacks. FriendFeed was much, much quieter without the tweets coming in.
Facebook has applications that allow you to import your tweets to update your status as well, but as we’ve seen, neither side seems to particularly care when those applications just stop working for weeks, or break.
The FriendFeed team clearly saw the value of Twitter in their ecosystem, but with Facebook, it’s wouldn’t be surprising if the emphasis will be less on Twitter, and more on Facebook’s own status updates. But if Facebook is smart, they may let FriendFeed do to its News Feed exactly what it did to the FriendFeed stream, which is open it up to all those Twitter updates.
The reason is that while Twitter itself remains important in that scenario, it’s possible that with Facebook’s 250 million plus users, a lot of the conversation (meaning comments) will start to take place on Facebook (just as it did on FriendFeed). This will slowly devalue Twitter over time as users realized they can have these conversations and cut out the middle man. This happened to a smaller extent when FriendFeed added the ability to post your own messages right to FriendFeed.
The Big Picture
This acquisition is a very smart move by Facebook to bolster its product, especially as it relates to the real-time web. One thing it does not do however, is make Facebook simpler. I’d still argue that Twitter has an inherent advantage over Facebook because it is so much simpler to use, resulting in a much lower barrier to entry. But naturally, with the complication comes a lot more data, and data is ultimately be the key for a larger battle for the web, so it’s a trade-off.
Where this leaves FriendFeed as a service is still up in the air. The team has said FriendFeed will continue to run as-is for the time being, but made no promises about the future. Cox’s comments seem to indicate that FriendFeed will be a sort of farm system for the big league Facebook, which I’m sure will piss off plenty of FriendFeed devotees.
Eventually, one way or another, it’s hard to see FriendFeed as it stands now, continuing on. Facebook will begin to take up too much of the FriendFeeders’ time, and it will languish. It’s sad, but that’s the web. Not every service can flourish. There simply aren’t enough users with enough time to use all of them.
So this move was also smart in a long-term sense by FriendFeed because it ensures the awesome technology it has fostered with FriendFeed will continue on, and could one day reach a billion people.
One thing is for certain, the Facebook/Twitter battle just got a lot more interesting. And those are always fun to watch.