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Three Big Questions Facing FriendFeed

I write about FriendFeed. A lot. Someone told me they wondered if I was employed there. Nope, just really enjoying the service.

Then I see a couple of bigger names in the online world, Robert Seidman and Steve Rubel, expressing their view that FriendFeed feels like it’s going to be the next big thing.

And I realize I’m not the only one with great enthusiasm. It’s growing.

As FriendFeed continues to acquire new users, innovate and roll out new features, it’s inevitable that some big decisions will need to be made. I want to discuss three of them here. Shall we?

1. How Will FriendFeed Balance Signal, Discovery and Noise?

This question really hits on two fundamental elements of the social media experience:

  • Distribution of information
  • Consumption of information

Managing information is a BIG deal. It’s hard to get the balance right – when do users really need a piece of info, when are they in the mood for a bit of discovery and at what point do they tune out because of information overload?

Google’s success was in recognizing the need for better information access, a process they continue to refine and improve. The thing with Google is that you search when you have a defined need. User intent is known. It’s what makes Google’s advertising so successful.

FriendFeed has a bigger challenge. Intentions vary by person. By hour. There’s time the river of content needs to deliver a hard dose of signal. Other times, you need a break from some work you’re doing, and you want a bit of discovery. But above all, please recognize what I consider to be noise!

So FriendFeed has to figure out the user intention, a burden that Google doesn’t have.

They’re off to a great start with these:

  • You choose the people to whom you subscribe, providing the first cut on topics you’ll see
  • Excellent Hide function
  • Rooms to isolate discussions around topics
  • Ability to view top content by likes, comments and other signals

This will be an ongoing war for FriendFeed, particularly as the service grows beyond its information junkie user base.

2. How Much of a Social Network Does FriendFeed Want to Be?

FriendFeed states their mission as follows:

FriendFeed enables you to keep up-to-date on the web pages, photos, videos and music that your friends and family are sharing. It offers a unique way to discover and discuss information among friends.

A simple goal. And yet, early users of FriendFeed are finding the social network aspects of FriendFeed to be compelling. I personally have established a completely different network of people on FriendFeed from what I have on Facebook or LinkedIn. I didn’t just port over my friends from those services, I established new connections.

When I was training for my first marathon back in 2003, I regularly participated over on Runner’s World message board. A group of us were running the California International Marathon in Sacramento, and an online bond formed. We conversed on the message board, and decided to meet up in Sacramento. How’d we do it? One guy posted his disguised email address, and we all emailed him. We then did the email thing to coordinate.

FriendFeed is above that level of social networking right now, but not by a whole lot.

FriendFeed has the potential to be a very powerful social network, one rivaling Facebook and LinkedIn. Why? Facebook is your network from school. LinkedIn is your network from work. FriendFeed is your network based on stuff that interests you. That’s what makes it so powerful.

Remember the interest in felix’s FriendFeed Likes Compatibility Calculator? People were really curious about who they match up with based on shared interests.

A few things come to mind as “best of” elements of social networks:

  • Direct messaging (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter all provide this)
  • Profile page – express yourself, complements your content, Likes and Comments
  • Status – for those times when you’re just not around or you need to get personal

Want to take it further? I can see FriendFeed becoming a more robust professional network than LinkedIn. You like all those comments and content? Maybe you’d look at that person as a potential hire. How about calendaring? Coordinate events, and it’d be a real nice complement to the Rooms.

How far does FriendFeed want to go in social networking?

3. How Will FriendFeed Make Money?

Ah, the money question. It’s inevitable and ultimately must be addressed to justify the venture capital.

I can see two possibilities for making money at this very early stage in the company’s history:

  • Advertising (duh…)
  • Business uses

Social media advertising has potential, but is not without its issues.

FriendFeed has a a few things to address and going for it when it comes to advertising. Users’ affection for the Refresh function means a lot of page views, but how much time will they spend on the ads. There’s a field of white space off the right, so real estate for ads won’t be a problem.

But FriendFeed does have two good weapons in its arsenal when it comes to advertising:

  1. A search function with a ton of potential (and search is the killer advertising feature)
  2. A mountain of data about what users’ interests are

As for business uses, my first thought when I saw the Rooms feature was that it could be a great thing for companies to use. Employees can trade thoughts on ideas and projects via Rooms. In fact, that’s how the FriendFeed guys use Rooms:

It started when we wanted a better way to share feature ideas and product plans with each other here at FriendFeed

I can also see media companies adding Rooms functionality to their sites. A much richer way to let readers discuss content than the current commenting systems.

Final Thoughts

I’ve written plenty about FriendFeed, and I’ll probably write more in the future. Partly because it’s such a compelling site for me. As a full participant, I can see a lot of stuff going on. And it doesn’t hurt that the site is getting hot in the blogosphere.

But there’s something deeper here as well. In FriendFeed, you can see some of the bigger issues that all social media have to deal with. For instance, I’d written a series of posts about the noise issue on FriendFeed. My most recent post stepped away from being FriendFeed-specific, and took a look at the broader issue of signal vs discovery in social media. Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb took it a step further with a great post Why Online “Noise” Is Good for You, pulling in scientific studies on the value of noise and discovery.

FriendFeed is tackling some meaty issues, as described above. Since they’ve got traction, a talented team, an innovative spirit and an attentive audience, their efforts to address the big questions will be a terrific study of the larger social media realm.

*****

See this item on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22three+big+questions+facing+friendfeed%22&public=1

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