Monday, March 23, 2009

The New Facebook: Faucet to Firehose

Facebook seems to change to something "new" every few months or so, I think I should clarify. This is the (as of now, latest) change where now they have a list of "News Feeds" on the right, with all friends' updates in the center, and the popular items on the right. Basically, Facebook is trying to be like Twitter. Here's the problem: Facebook isn't Twitter. They're completely different kinds of social networks. Twitter is a firehose, and as such, I select who I am "following" on Twitter with care. If someone is too noisy or prolific, I don't subscribe to them, and I don't lose anything by it. Facebook, on the other hand, aspires to be the repository of all of my social contacts. If I know someone, I would like to add them as a friend on Facebook, and not need to worry that they will inundate me with events. Facebook used to allow its users to fine-tune the types of stories that appeared in our home feeds. If we wanted to see every note that a friend posted, we could crank "notes" up, and see them all, and if we didn't want to be bothered by changes in relationship status, we could crank that all the way down, and never see them. We could also fine-tune our preferences by the individual, so if so-and-so published too many links, we could turn those down for that friend in order to prevent those from clogging the feed, but still let a few trickle in, in case they started to get interesting. Facebook was thus ideally configured to allow me to maintain a stream of information from each of my friends, and they did a pretty good job of balancing the flow of information such that it wasn't overwhelming. Until, that is, they decided to copy Twitter. Twitter makes no attempt to filter or balance anything. If you're following someone on Twitter, you see everything they post. Because that's what you're asking for: that's what Twitter is for: listening to people. If you don't want to hear what they're eating for lunch, don't follow them. Facebook knows about this social difference, and they've accommodated it. Sort of. For a long time, they've had "Friend Lists", which are basically tags that you can apply to this or that friend, which you can also use to restrict or allow permissions to see certain sets of content. I have a list of "Family" and a list of "BSF" friends, and a list of people who only see my "Limited Profile" and so on. Facbook now features these lists on the home page at the top of the left-hand column. At first, when you click on a list (or the master list of all friends called "News Feed") you see everything that everyone on that list has posted. It can be a lot, but let's say that Suzy is on my "Seattle" list. That means that if I click the little "X" button on one of her stories on the "News Feed" list, I can still click on the "Seattle" list and see her items along with my other Seattle friends. But it's still all or nothing. I no longer have the option to see "some" of her stories, or even "certain types" of stories from her. It's all, or nothing. Just like Friendfeed. Now, I like Twitterand FriendFeed for what they do: they're firehoses. If I miss something, it's not a big deal. It's transient information, and its relevance has an expiration date. When Suzy posts pictures of her nieces, though, I don't want to miss that. [Note: Suzy is fictional] But leaving her in my main feed means that I have to put up with her constantly posting links to this or that tear-jerker website or deal that she found on socks on Amazon. Facebook took away my granularity, and I'm afraid that it's become much less useful as a result. Most people never knew about the ability to customize their feeds by tuning their friends in order to see "less" or "more" from them, but they benefited from the system anyway, because Facebook was automatically balancing their feed content for them. No longer. Now, they will find that they miss a lot, simply because they didn't log in or hit refresh in time before it got buried under wall posts and status updates from less important friends. They'll feel bad about silencing their frineds entirely, so they won't do it, and most people won't maintain different friend lists for different sets of friends. One of two things will happen with users: Facebook is hoping they will spend more time sitting in front of their browsers hitting "refresh", sifting through the garbage manually, hoping to catch the stories they care about. I think users will find Facebook to be too much of a time leech and less useful than before, and spend less time there as a result. They'll still log in occasionally, but they won't count on it the way that they did before.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Google Reader Commenting Problem

Google Reader is an excellent feed reader. Let me just go right out and say that. It does an awesome job of gathering together the content from all my feeds, organizing it, and presenting it to me. When you have all that content together in one place, sometimes you want to share your thoughts on what you read, or point out an article to your friends so that they can read it as well. Google Reader has a feature both to "Share" and "Share with note" which perform their stated purposes. There is also a bookmarklet available so that if you come across something on the web that you want to share, you can do so even if you are not subscribed to a feed of it. The problem arises when you have a group of friends who all like to share things back and forth: sometimes an article starts a discussion, and two or more friends wish to have a forum for that discussion. The discussion was started over Google Reader, so the natural thing would be for Google Reader to provide a seamless arena for that discussion to occur. The way that Google Reader implements sharing "under the covers" (as we in Computer Science like to say) is that each user has what essentially amounts to a blog, where all of our shared items and our comments about them are stored. This blog page is accessible under "Shared items" and it has a web page, and a feed of its own. When a friend shares their shared items with you, you are simply granted access to their feed. There is even a web page at which your blog can be accessed, which, if you wish, you can share with your friends and/or the world. (The URL for this blog contains a unique identifier, which would be nearly impossible to guess, in order to protect your privacy--but only if you wish to keep it a secret.) Now, herein lies the problem: when I share something and comment on it, all my friends see that comment and the shared article. When Josh, who is my friend, sees this article and my comment, he can also share the article with his own comment: which will be seen by his friends, including me. But the set of my friends is disjoint from the set of his friends. The problem compounds as more people wish to participate in the discussion, since there will be a growing cloud of people on the edges of the friend network who (1) are being repeatedly shared the same article, and (2) do not have access to the whole discussion or are uninterested in it. The request to have an integrated, more fully functional system for story commenting has been brought before Google, and is currently being ignored. I think this is because in order to fix the problem, they would need to change the basic architecture of Google Reader, and they're not prepared to do that. Google Shared Stuff showed some promise, but it never offered a comment feature, and is being discontinued. Friend Connect might someday fill this niche. The ideal use case would be that every time someone shares an article, a new forum would be created for that article. If one of your friends has shared an article before you, you have the option of starting your own forum on that article, or joining the existing one, thereby making it available to all of your friends who weren't friends with the original forum creator. The privacy side-effect of this is that when you participate in one of these forums, your comments can potentially be passed along to anyone, if they're a friend of a friend of a friend. I don't see that as bad, but Google Reader is built on the assumption that if I want my comments to be exclusive to only my friends, Google Reader isn't going to pass them along to anyone else. In the use case I'm thinking of, articles that had been shared would be annotated like this:
  • Josh: "I think this is hilarious."
    • 3 replies | Reply
  • Brian: "I think these people should be locked up and the key thrown away!"
    • 0 replies | Reply
  • Share | Start discussion | Ignore
Design goals in setting up the above example:
  • Maintain current functionality by allowing a user to see his friends' notes on shared items when they come up in his reader.
  • Co-locate friends' comments, so that a user can see what each of his friends said about an item in one place.
  • Ensure that the item appears when a friend starts a new discussion, but allow users to prevent a popular discussion they are not interested in from becoming annoying by repeatedly popping up (hence the "Ignore" option).
  • Allow a user to create a forum in order to share a comment that can be replied to by any of his friends, and any of their friends, who will now be able to see the discussion.
  • Notify other users that a forum has been created (or joined) by one of their friends when they see the article, so that they will not create redundant discussions unless that is there intent.
Frankly, I don't see this happening, especially since Google Reader users have been promised the privacy of their comments, and this system allows comments to propagate along with items over the friend network. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I want Google Reader to turn into something like the above, since it would inevitably be abused. After all, MySpace wasn't that bad of an idea in concept, it's just that the users were given more control than they could handle responsibly, and the result is quite ugly. Most of what I want to read is what I'm subscribed to, and I'm willing to take a look at something that my friends think is especially great that they've read. So, the options are as follows:
  1. The status quo: continue to complain, hoping that Google will fix it someday. Lower expectations in the meantime and refrain from attempting to have 'conversations' about Google Reader shared content, being content with mere comments.
  2. Integrate a 3rd party solution: look for another service to which Google Reader conversations can be redirected in a relatively seamless manner.
    1. If none are satisfactory, create our own. IPO and retire as millionaires within a decade.
  3. Ditch Google Reader: stop using Google Reader as the primary feed reader, and switch to another feed reader that provides a conversation thread for each shared item.
    1. This would involve getting the entire group of friends to switch to a new network for sharing (not easy).
    2. I don't know that there are any that actually fit this bill, since this isn't so much a reader feature as a social feature.
  4. Split the difference: Use Google Reader for what it's good for--reading feeds and commenting on why you're sharing that particular feed, not what someone else said about it. If you want to start a discussion, start it elsewhere: e-mail, FriendFeed, Facebook, etc.
  • Right off the bat, I know FriendFeed can be a good supplement to Google Reader, and I'm trying to work out exactly how the two can fit together for discussions originating on Google Reader.
  • Facebook has this sort of comment system down pat, but they don't have a reader, and I don't want to spam all of my Facebook friends with every story I share unless they specifically want it. Mostly though, Facebook doesn't prioritize maintaining users' privacy and ownership of data.
  • There's a Firefox extension that turns any page into a chat box: Socialbrowse. However, it looks like it's simply a public comment system like Digg and reddit. I'm looking more for a system where comments and articles are primarily shared with friends.
If you can't tell, I'm a verbal processor, and in the process of organizing the information laid out in this blog post, I have convinced myself that the best course of action is to encourage those who wish to have back-and-forth discussion about an online article to take those discussions to a service that specializes in that sort of thing.
  • E-mail is a perfectly legitimate system for a discussion thread, and Google Reader seems to have anticipated this by providing an "Email" feature, located right next to "Share with note".
  • For more casual discussions, where the attention demanded by an e-mail would be too much, I think FriendFeed is the way to go. I have all my Google Reader shared items automatically show up on my FriendFeed, and if you have get an account, you can start a comment thread on any item.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Google Friend Connect

I just published a post on my other blog about Google Friend Connect (and Blogger's "Follow") feature. I describe what they are, and how they work, as far as I can tell. I decided to post it over on my non-technical blog, because it's targeted at your average Internet user, and doesn't require any technical knowledge to follow (at least that's what I think). I would encourage those who enjoy my blogs to "Follow" them.