August 26, 2009
@ 05:44 PM

Facebook unique user chart (2007 - 2009)

Twitter unique user chart (2007 - 2009)

FriendFeed unique users chart (2007 - 2009)

With the sale of FriendFeed to Facebook for $50 million, there doesn’t seem to be much harm in talking about why FriendFeed failed to take off with mainstream audiences despite lots of hype from all of the usual corners. A good starting place is the recent blog post by Robert Scoble entitled Where’s the gang of 2,000 who controls tech hype hanging out today? where he wrote

You see, there’s a gang of about 2,000 people who really control tech industry hype and play a major role in deciding which services get mainstream hype (this gang was all on Twitter by early 2007 — long before Oprah and Ashton and all the other mainstream celebrities, brands, and journalists showed up). I have not seen any startup succeed without getting most of these folks involved. Yes, Mike Arrington of TechCrunch is the parade leader, but he hardly controls this list. Dave Winer proved that by launching by showing it first to Marshall Kirkpatrick and raced through this list.

By the way, having this list use your service does NOT guarantee market success. This list has all added me on Dopplr, for instance, but Dopplr has NOT broken out of this small, geeky crowd. Studying why not is something we should do.

For the past few years, I’ve been watching services I used that were once the domain of geeks like Robert Scoble’s inner circle have eventually been adopted by mainstream users like my wife. In general, the pattern has always seemed to boil down to some combination of network effects (i.e. who do I know that is using this service?) and value proposition to the typical end user. Where a lot of services fall down is that although their value is obvious and instantly apparent to the typical Web geek, that same value is hidden or even non-existent to non-geeks. I tried the exercise of listing some of the services I’ve used that eventually got used by my wife and writing down the one or two sentence description of how I’d have explained the value proposition to here

  • Facebook – an online rolodex of your friends, family & coworkers that let’s you stay connected to what they’re up to. Also has some cool time wasting games and quizzes if your friends are boring that day.
  • Twitter – stay connected to the people you find interesting but wouldn’t or couldn’t “friend” to on Facebook (e.g. celebrities like Oprah & Ashton Kutcher or amusing sources like Sh*t My Dad Says). Also has a cool trending topics feature so you can see what people are talking about if your friends are boring that day.
  • Blogger – an online diary where you can share stories and pictures from your life with friends and family. Also a place where you can find stories and opinions from people like you when you’re boring and have nothing to write that day (Note: Blogger doesn’t actually make it easy to find blogs you might find interesting).
  • Google Reader – a way to track the blogs you read regularly once your list of blog bookmarks gets unwieldy. Also solves the problem of finding blogs you might like based on your current reading list. 

These are four sites or technologies that I’ve used that my wife now uses ordered by how much she still uses them today. All four sites are somewhat mainstream although they may differ in popularity by an order of magnitude in some cases. Let’s compare these descriptions to those of two sites that haven’t yet broken into the mainstream but my geek friends love

  • FriendFeed – republish all of the content from the different social networking media websites you use onto this site. Also One place to stay connected to what people are saying on multiple social media sites instead of friending them on multiple sites.
  • Dopplr – social network for people who travel a lot and preferably have friends who either travel a lot or are spread out across multiple cities/countries.

Why Dopplr isn’t mainstream should be self evident. If you’re a conference hopping geek who bounds from SXSW to MIX in the spring or the Web 2.0 summit to Le Web in the fall like Robert Scoble then a site like Dopplr makes sense especially since you likely have a bunch of friends from the conference circuit. On the other hand, if you’re the typical person who either only travels on vacation or occasionally for business then the appeal of Dopplr is lost on you.

Similarly FriendFeed value proposition is that it is a social network for people who are on too many social networks. But even that really didn’t turn out to be how it went since Twitter ended being the dominant social network on the site and so FriendFeed was primarily a place to have conversations about what people were saying on Twitter. Thus there were really two problems with FriendFeed at the end of the day. The appeal of the service isn’t really broad (e.g. joining a 3rd social network because she has overlapping friends on Twitter & Facebook would be exacerbating the problem for my wife not solving it). Secondly, although the site ended up being primarily used as a Twitter app/conversation hub, its owners didn’t really focus on this aspect of the service which would likely have been avenue for significant growth. For what I mean, look at the graph of unique users for sites that acted as adjuncts to Twitter versus FriendFeed’s which chose not to

There are definitely lessons to learn here for developers who are trying to figure out how to cross the chasm from enthusiastic praise from the Robert Scoble’s of the world to being used by regular non-geeks in their daily lives.


Categories: Social Software

Sam Diaz over at ZDNet wrote the following in a blog entry titled RSS: A good idea at the time but there are better ways now in response to an announcement of a new feature in Google Reader

Once a big advocate for Google Reader, I have to admit that I haven’t logged in in weeks, maybe months. That’s not to say I’m not reading. Sometimes I feel like reading - and writing this blog - are the only things I do. But my sources of for reading material are scattered across the Web, not in one aggregated spot.

I catch headlines on Yahoo News and Google News. I have a pretty extensive lineup of browser bookmarks to take me to sites that I scan throughout the day. Techmeme is always in one of my browser tabs so I can keep a pulse on what others in my industry are talking about. And then there are Twitter and Facebook. I actually pick up a lot of interesting reading material from people I’m following on Twitter and some friends on Facebook, with some of it becoming fodder for blog posts here.


The truth of the matter is that RSS readers are a Web 1.0 tool, an aggregator of news headlines that never really caught on with the mainstream the way Twitter and Facebook have.

I take issue with the title of Sam’s post since his complaint is really about the current generation of consumer tools for reading RSS feeds not the underlying technology itself. In general, I agree with Sam that the current generation of RSS readers have failed users and I now use pretty much the same tools that he does to catch up on blog (i.e. Twitter & Techmeme). I’ve listed some of my gripes with RSS readers including the one I wrote (RSS Bandit) in the past and will reiterate some of these points below

  1. Dave Winer was right about River of News style aggregators. A user interface where I see a stream of news and can click on the bits that interest me without doing a lot of management is superior to the using the current dominant RSS reader paradigm where I need to click on multiple folders, manage read/unread state and wade through massive walls of text I don’t want to read to get to the gems.

  2. Today’s RSS readers are a one way tool instead of a two-way tool. One of the things I like about shared links in Twitter & Facebook is that I can start or read a conversation about the story and otherwise give feedback (i.e. “like” or retweet) to the publisher of the news as part of the experience. This is where I think Sam’s comment that these are “Web 1.0” tools rings the truest. Google Reader recently added a “like” feature but it is broken in that the information about who liked one of my posts never gets back to me whereas it does when I share this post on Twitter or Facebook.

  3. As Dave McClure once ranted, it's all about the faces. The user interface of RSS readers is sterile and impersonal compared to social sites like Twitter and Facebook because of the lack of pictures/faces of the people whose words you are reading. It always makes a difference to me when I read a blog and there is a picture of the author and the same goes for just browsing a Twitter account.

  4. No good ways to separate the wheat from the chaff. As if it isn’t bad enough that you are nagged about having thousands of unread blog posts when you don’t visit your RSS reader for a few days, there isn’t a good way to get an overview of what is most interesting/pressing and then move on by marking everything as read. On the other hand, when I go to Techmeme I can always see what the current top stories are and can even go back to see what was popular on the days I didn’t visit the site. 

  5. The process of adding feeds still takes too many steps. If I see your Twitter profile and think you’re worth following, I click the “follow” button and I’m done. On the other hand, if I visit your blog there’s a multi-step process involved to adding you to my subscriptions even if I use a web-based RSS aggregator like Google Reader.

These are the five biggest bugs in the traditional RSS reading experience today that I hope eventually get fixed since it is holding back the benefits people can get from reading blogs and/other activity streams using the open & standard infrastructure of the Web.


Voting starts today for the various panel proposals for the 2010 SXSW Interactive conference. After learning a lot from participating in panels at this year’s conference, I’ve submitted two proposals for panel discussions for next years conference. Below are their descriptions and links to each panel presentation for voting

Social Network Interop
Portable contacts, life streaming and various ‘Connect’ offerings have begun to break down the silos and walled gardens that are social networks. Come hear a panel of experts discuss some of the technologies, design issues and future direction of this trend.

Drinking from the activity stream when it becomes a tidal wave
The stream is overflowing. How do you make sure the stream is still useful when there is SO MUCH getting pushed into it

If you click through the links you’ll find a list of the seven to nine questions that will be asked and answered by the panelists. The trickiest part of this process was trying to come up with proposals six months ahead of the conference. A lot changes in six months and it was a little difficult trying to come up with panel topics that wouldn’t seem like rehashing old news by the time 2010 rolls around. At least the panel ideas aren’t as topical as discussing Facebook’s purchase of Friendfeed. :) 

Let me know what you think of the panel ideas and who you think should be on the panels if they get accepted.


Categories: Social Software

Brad Fitzpatrick has been dropping some interesting mind bombs since starting at Google. First it was the Social Graph API recently followed by PubSubHubbub (which I need to write about one of these days) and most recently the WebFinger protocol. The underlying theme in all of these ideas is creating an open infrastructure for simplifying the tasks that are common to social networking media sites and thus improving the user experience.

The core idea behind WebFinger is excerpted below from the project site

If I give you my email address today, you can't do anything with it except email me. I can't attach public metadata to my email address to give you more information. WebFinger is about making email addresses more valuable, by letting people attach public metadata to them. That metadata might include:

  • public profile data
  • pointer to identity provider (e.g. OpenID server)
  • a public key
  • other services used by that email address (e.g. Flickr, Picasa, Smugmug, Twitter, Facebook, and usernames for each)
  • a URL to an avatar
  • profile data (nickname, full name, etc)
  • whether the email address is also a JID, or explicitly declare that it's NOT an email, and ONLY a JID, or any combination to disambiguate all the addresses that look like
  • or even a public declaration that the email address doesn't have public metadata, but has a pointer to an endpoint that, provided authentication, will tell you some protected metadata, depending on who you authenticate as.

... but rather than fight about the exact contents

The way this is written makes it sound like this would be a useful service for end users but I think that is misleading. If you want to find out about someone you’re best of plugging their name into a search decision engine like Bing or the people search of a site like Facebook which should give you a similar or better experience today without deploying any new infrastructure on the Web.

Where I find WebFinger to be interesting is in simplifying a lot of the common workflows that exist on the Social Web today. For example, I’ve often criticized Twitter for using the hand picked Suggested User’s List as the primary way of suggesting who you should follow instead of your social graph from a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace. However when you look at their Find People on Other Networks page it is clear that this would end up being an intimidating user experience if they listed all of the potential sources of social graphs on that page (i.e. IM services, email address books, social networking sites, etc) then asked the user to pick which ones they use.

On the other hand, if there was a way for Twitter to know which sites I belong to just from the email address I used to signup, then there is a much smoother user experience that is possible.   

This is a fairly boring and mundane piece of Social Web plumbing when you think about it but the ramifications if it takes off could be very powerful. Imagine what direction Twitter would have taken if it used your real social graph to suggest friends to you instead of the S.U.L. as one example. 


Categories: Social Software