Monday, October 19, 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love FriendFeed

FriendFeed Last week we were fortunate enough to have a seminar from Cameron Neylon, The web as a useful tool rather than a threat: controlling information overload. Inevitably, during the course of this, Cameron described his love affair with FriendFeed, which is pushing forward the boundaries of open science, such as the polymath project.

I've had an account on FriendFeed ever since the service opened, but like many people, I've never felt comfortable there. During the seminar, Cameron made an important point about tools versus communities - that the tool is subservient to the community, and a less than perfect tool (aren't they all?) is compensated for by an above average community. This set me thinking about FriendFeed again. Why didn't I feel plugged into a community there the same way that, after much effort, I do on Twitter? Which is when it occurred to me that I had always taken FriendFeed at face value as a feed aggregator, and treating it like one. But it's not. Sure, Friendfeed has aggregator functions, but it's much more than that. It's a near realtime communication environment, like Twitter. Like Facebook. It's a community.

So I went back to work on FriendFeed with fresh eyes. I started by severely pruning the people I followed, the people who didn't add value to my FriendFeed network. Out went the people who just dump RSS feeds into FriendFeed, especially from Twitter, or any other external network. Out went the people who never comment on other people's FriendFeed items, who never "like" items on FriendFeed - the equivalent of a FF highfive. Out went my Twitter-overlapping edtech subscriptions, leaving this network with a distinct identity. Out went my delicious, CiteUlike and other feeds. The final tweak I made was to dump most of my subscriptions to Friendfeed groups - too much noise - and use FriendFeed to build a network of people rather than relying on pre-made lists.

And in came new subscriptions - people who add value to FriendFeed. In came the desktop notifier, plugging me into the realtime FriendFeed stream and enabling conversation. In came the bookmarklet, allowing me to share items with the community, not just second hand news from RSS feeds. I stopped visiting and took up residence in FriendFeed. And within an hour, this new network was showing its new identity, in the form of conversations. Suddenly, it felt like a network I was a part of, as Twitter does, as Facebook does. In fact, I feel much more at home in FriendFeed than I ever have in Facebook. By dealing with the overlap with my other networks, FriendFeed suddenly had a purpose, rather than simply being the awkward kid that hangs around Twitter. You may not need another network, which is fair enough. But if you do, be aware that if you want to build a personal learning network on FriendFeed you should not treat it as an aggregator.

Tomorrow I intend to write about the future of FriendFeed and how I plan to try to use it in education. This isn't my coquettish attempt to keep you reading, just that I have a lot of thoughts going round in my head about FriendFeed at present, and I don't feel able to publish them until I've had a little bit longer to cogitate.