Thursday, December 04, 2008

Google Reader vs. FriendFeed

It seems that I've been introducing some of my friends to the features of various online tools a lot lately. Not that I've been going out of my way, but it seems that I'm "that guy" who is both "in the know" about tech stuff and willing to answer questions. A friend of mine recently asked me about Gmail. Her frustration was with the fact that the inbox was perpetually cluttered, and there was no way to clear out the old e-mails she had already dealt with without deleting them. So she thought, that is, until I told her what that "Archive" button does. Without it, there is no difference between the Inbox and "All Mail". Labels (aka "Tags") are also an indespensible feature of Gmail when used properly, but that's not my topic. Recently, I started using FriendFeed, and I thought I would explain what how I got there, what it is, and how its niche differs from that of Google Reader. Recently, I started using Twitter. It began with just subscribing to a friend's Twitter feed in Google Reader (my feed (i.e., RSS, Atom) reader of choice), but it would only refresh the Twitter content about once every couple of days, so I would get nothing for a while, and then about ten posts all at once. When things come in little bits, they're time-sensitive, and so I decided to get a Twitter account of my own in order to keep track of my friends' feeds in a timely manner, and be able to reply if desired. Thus, I became a Twitter lurker. However, it didn't take me long to figure out how to hook up Twitter to my Facebook status, making my "tweets" (another 'word' I dislike) a replacement for updating my Facebook status, and transforming me into a 'real' Twitter user. That wasn't enough, however. Apparently, my pallet for up-to-the-minute online content would not be satisfied until I found FriendFeed. When I first encountered FriendFeed, it looked redundant to Twitter's funcitonality, with the added detriment that none of my friends (and only one of my acquaintances) actually used it (at the time). This turned out not to be the case upon further inspection. FriendFeed is to Twitter what Google Reader is to Blogs. Yes, it will keep you informed of your friends' latest updates to Twitter, but it will also keep you informed of their activities on Digg, Reddit, Flickr, Picasa Web, their shared articles (on any number of services), and absolutely anything else that can be accessed through a feed. The problem was, since none of my friends were using FriendFeed, that none of their content and activity was available there. Enter the "imaginary friend" feature. Say I have a friend who uses Blogger, Google Reader, Facebook, Twitter, and Digg, but this Friend does not use FriendFeed. I can create an "imaginary friend", complete with nickname and profile picture, that aggregates this friend's content from all the various sites and makes it visible in myfeed exactly as if that friend had signed up and entered all those services as their own. All I need to provide, depending on the service, is their account's display name or feed URL. But why, you might ask, would I need yet another feed aggregator, when I am already using Google Reader? The difference in the way that these two services are used is that while Google Reader provides a hub for consuming content, FriendFeed provides a hub for observing events. Google Reader is all about pulling in the meaty content: reading the whole article. Google Reader, therefore, displays all of the text and multimedia that it can, and keeps track for you of what you have and haven't read. FriendFeed, on the other hand, is a stream of things that "happened": so-and-so posted on their blog, this person updated their status, that person posted a photo or video. The substance of the content is not displayed on FriendFeed: only that it happened and a title, short snippet, or small thumbnail. When an event occurs, it appears as quicly as possible at the top of the page. Once something drops off the page, it's irrelevant. There are items that appear both in Google Reader and FriendFeed, but there are also items that only appear on one or the other. FriendFeed is all about, well, friends, therefore news sites, webcomics, and blogs by people I don't know are much better suited exclusively to Google Reader, where nothing is skipped, and information is handled exhaustively. By contrast, items with very little content, or of a transient nature, are better suited to FriendFeed, where they can be noticed and optionally interacted with should the occasion arise to do so.

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