Friendfeed: The Little Engine that Could

Update: Friendfeed today released support for its Beta Real-Time feature. The API adds the ability to fetch realtime streams based on the Home, Room, and Friends List updates as they occur. While Friends Lists offer a way to port social graph data of your Twitter Follows to the Friendfeed platform, co-founder Bret Taylor said that was not yet available through the API “though we should add those methods in the future.”

Friendfeed’s launch of realtime services has set off a serious horse race on the micromessaging platform. While the New York Times contrasts Twitter and Yammer as eyeballs versus revenue, or consumer v. enterprise, Friendfeed finds itself positioned as an attractive candidate for building scoped message hubs without an IT oversight requirement.

Yammer’s appeal is the quality of its offering, which extends across Web, desktop, and iPhone instances. The Adobe Air client is elegantly deployed, with a preference page for updates that specifically defines the location of scroll-up notifications (I configured it to the lower left to avoid Twhirl’s hard-coded territory), the length posts remain visible (not adjustable in Twhirl), and the number of full text items (defaults to first 3).

If you’re an XMPP fan, you can setup IM from the Web client (Twitter has killed IM) in a simple 2-step process that pings you in Gchat and confirms in the Web client. The iPhone still awaits Apple’s push technology to round out the suite, but the spit and polish of the client suite neatly defines what Twitter and its third party support will need to do once they are challenged in the marketplace. and its Laconica compatriots may have garnered a dedicated developer-focused version of Twitter’s high-visibility crowd, but there’s no papering over the weaknesses of a single point of failure at the center of the potential platform. Evan Prodromou and his open source team have outperformed expectations in cloning Twitter’s API and leveraging Twitter’s abdication of Track and now IM. But where Twitter used to stumble and shudder around high volume events such as primaries and debates, more recently the service has stayed up while it’s that goes dark.’s fundamental problem is the lack of a viral trigger to boost adoption to a critical mass beyond those who feel used and abused by Twitter’s disingenuous path to stability and a revenue strategy. Twitter has successfully made the case for becoming a common carrier of realtime discourse, regardless of the current absence of the carrot we all bit into.’s open source roots may convert a few of the choir, but for true competition to emerge, another attractor must be offered as bait.

Friendfeed seems a plausible host for such a disruptor of Twitter’s power base. What realtime enables, and Track accelerates, is the swarm behavior which evangelizes micromessaging. Without realtime, Twitter is a bulletin board in the center of the town, a virtual water cooler where the fodder of overnight is chewed and refashioned as punditry for the midday crowd. Just as Yammer is work product meets group IM, Twitter is brand protection meets market intelligence.

Swarm behavior, by contrast, turns the Twitter idea into a wave of innovation, the realtime expansion of idea into action, of early warning into rapid decision making, of business intelligence into strategic deployment of resources. Swarms are as interesting for how people don’t react as for what the original spark suggests. As we learn from experience how specific nodes participate in the information stream, we can evaluate today’s silence or muted contributions to derive competitive insight not possible before micromessaging achieved traction.

Friendfeed’s original value proposition was as an aggregator, taking off from Facebook’s activity stream to add a conversational oasis where behavioral signals could be mixed with a limited social graph and explicit voting to create some degree of authority and information fidelity. But nowhere was the speed with which Twitter grew mirrored in the resulting Friendfeed community; the lack of swarm characteristics kept the dynamics insular, the service a refuge for critics of message length, instability, and A List blogosphere class warfare.

Add realtime and suddenly the space is recast. As Twitter Track refugees tire kick, they notice the holes in their social graphs on the new service. Almost immediately questions bubbled up on and Twitter: How can we port our Follows? Why does it take 30 minutes for posts to show up on FriendFeed when it takes seconds from Twitter? Which services are faster than others in hitting the realtime canvas?

What’s innately disruptive about Friendfeed’s realtime services is that its competitors can be used to debug and flesh out the service as the community responds to the swarm behavior it enables. The easiest way to check who was responsible for the 30-minute delay from to Friendfeed was to disable that subscription and enable one from Twitter. Since many users employ a bridge to pipe posts to Twitter, the message path still works into Friendfeed when you unsub from

Once the pathway is cleared and the relative inefficiencies of Friendfeed’s inserting other services such as FLickr into the stream are calibrated, the next step is to solve the social graph issues. Here’s where Friend Lists loom large, as it should be relatively easy to set up mini-home pages with high value follows. The loser here will likely be Twhirl, since aggregating follows from Twitter and Laconica instances can effectively roll up multiple windows into a single interface. Alternately, you can embed multiple streams on a console.

Once the promised realtime APIs are released, Twhirl and will be able to recover some of their feature set, and of course the business conversations necessary to achieve parity with Twitter and vice versa will be joined. Earlier yesterday Prodromou enabled direct reply to specific messages, and a comparable ability from within Friendfeed would leapfrog past Twitter until all three players achieve parity. copied Twitter’s initial reply_id functionality when it appeared several months ago, but Twitter will have to decide whether it makes strategic sense to make it easy to talk cross-platform.

Much has been made of the differences between Friendfeed and Twitter, but realtime is the great leveler. Once the basics are ironed out, the differentiator between individual services will be much more in their effectiveness in acting as host to enough of the routing points of the overall micromessaging infrastructure to be the driver of standards. Just as Firefox (even with Chrome’s assist) continues to be the fulcrum of browser standards, so may Friendfeed step into the role of mediator between public and private micromessaging services.

Such a hybrid of intranet and extranet services will go a long way toward triggering the entry of the platform players, as email and IM become services that could be absorbed by the realtime architecture. That possibility certainly redounds to the incumbents, but users may be resistant to having their access to an open network constrained by a bigco audience acquisition and siloing bifurcation of the cloud. And just as Twitter consolidated the Track threat by purchasing Summize, we may see overtures in either direction by Friendfeed and Twitter, by Microsoft, Google, and Cisco, or open source patrons such as Oracle, IBM, and even Sun in the case of or an XMPP competitor.