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Friendfeed for Research? First impressions of ScienceFeed

16 February 2010 10 Comments
Image representing FriendFeed as depicted in C...
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I have been saying for quite some time that I think Friendfeed offers a unique combination of functionality that seems to work well for scientists, researchers, and the people they want to (or should want to) have conversations with. For me the core of this functionality lies in two places: first that the system explicitly supports conversations that centre around objects. This is different to Twitter which supports conversations but doesn’t centre them around the object – it is actually not trivial to find all the tweets about a given paper for instance. Facebook now has similar functionality but it is much more often used to have pure conversation. Facebook is a tool mainly used for person to person interactions, it is user- or person-centric. Friendfeed, at least as it is used in my space is object-centric, and this is the key aspect in which “social networks for science” need to differ from the consumer offerings in my opinion. This idea can trace a fairly direct lineage via Deepak Singh to the Jeff Jonas/Jon Udell concatenation of soundbites:

“Data finds data…then people find people”

The second key aspect about Friendfeed is that it gives the user a great deal of control over what they present to represent themselves. If we accept the idea that researchers want to interact with other researchers around research objects then it follows that the objects that you choose to represent yourself is crucial to creating your online persona. I choose not to push Twitter into Friendfeed mainly because my tweets are directed at a somewhat different audience. I do choose to bring in video, slides, blog posts, papers, and other aspects of my work life. Others might choose to include Flickr but not YouTube. Flexibility is key because you are building an online presence. Most of the frustration I see with online social tools and their use by researchers centres around a lack of control in which content goes where and when.

So as an advocate of Friendfeed as a template for tools for scientists it is very interesting to see how that template might be applied to tools built with researchers in mind. ScienceFeed launched yesterday by Ijad Madisch, the person behind ResearchGate. The first thing to say is that this is an out and out clone of Friendfeed, from the position of the buttons to the overall layout. It seems not to be built on the Tornado server that was open sourced by the Friendfeed team so questions may hang over scalability and architecture but that remains to be tested. The main UI difference with Friendfeed is that the influence of another 18 months of development of social infrastructure is evident in the use of OAuth to rapidly leverage existing networks and information on Friendfeed, Twitter, and Facebook. Although it still requires some profile setup, this is good to see. It falls short of the kind of true federation which we might hope to see in the future but then so does everything else.

In terms of specific functionality for scientists the main additions is a specialised tool for adding content via a search of literature databases. This seems to be adapted from the ResearchGate tool for populating a profile’s publication list. A welcome addition and certainly real tools for researchers must treat publications as first class objects. But not groundbreaking.

The real limitation of ScienceFeed is that it seems to miss the point of what Friendfeed is about. There is currently no mechanism for bringing in and aggregating diverse streams of content automatically. It is nice to be able to manually share items in my citeulike library but this needs to happen automatically. My blog posts need to come in as do my slideshows on slideshare, my preprints on Nature Precedings or Arxiv. Most of this information is accessible via RSS feeds so import via RSS/Atom (and in the future real time protocols like XMPP) is an absolute requirement. Without this functionality, ScienceFeed is just a souped up microblogging service. And as was pointed out yesterday in one friendfeed thread we have a twitter-like service for scientists. It’s called Twitter. With the functionality of automatic feed aggregation Friendfeed can become a presentation of yourself as a researcher on the web. An automated publication list that is always up to date and always contains your latest (public) thoughts, ideas, and content. In short your web-native business card and CV all rolled into one.

Finally there is the problem of the name. I was very careful at the top of this post to be inclusive in the scope of people who I think can benefit from Friendfeed. One of the great strengths of Friendfeed is that it has promoted conversations across boundaries that are traditionally very hard to bridge. The ongoing collision between the library and scientific communities on Friendfeed may rank one day as its most important achievement, at least in the research space. I wonder whether the conversations that have sparked there would have happened at all without the open scope that allowed communities to form without prejudice as to where they came from and then to find each other and mingle. There is nothing in ScienceFeed that precludes anyone from joining as far as I can see, but the name is potentially exclusionary, and I think unfortunate.

Overall I think ScienceFeed is a good discussion point, a foil to critical thinking, and potentially a valuable fall back position if Friendfeed does go under. It is a place where the wider research community could have a stronger voice about development direction and an opportunity to argue more effectively for business models that can provide confidence in a long term future. I think it currently falls far short of being a useful tool but there is the potential to use it as a spur to build something better. That might be ScienceFeed v2 or it might be an entirely different service. In a follow-up post I will make some suggestions about what such a service might look like but for now I’d be interested in what other people think.

Other Friendfeed threads are here and here and Techcrunch has also written up the launch.

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  • Heather said:

    Thanks for the round-up, Cameron. Saved me a lot of work. I'll continue lurking, then, but will join if as you say, Friendfeed does go under.

  • AJCann said:

    While I absolutely agree with your comments about Sciencefeed, I think you are a little too dogmatic about the object-centered nature of Friendfeed. It certainly can be used in that way, and in some communities it is, but in other FF communities it is used in a much more identity-centred way which overlaps substantially with Facebook. In either mode, the key aspect of friendfeed is the open and inclusive nature which attempts to create more closed communities would lose.

  • Cameron Neylon said:

    Alan, absolutely agree with you here. I just believe that for researchers this mode of interaction (which isn't well supported by other tools) is more important. It would be great to get some actual data on this of course rather than my hand waving as well. In fact the thing the really tipped me off to this characteristic was when they changed the UI on friendfeed and took away the icon representing the source of each object (google reader, blog, flickr etc) and replaced it with the avatar image of the user. The majority of users, and by extension the majority of communities, seemed to really like this, while the research community (in an inclusive sense) seemed not to.

    I will maintain that I think this mode of interaction will be an important part of the makeup of any social network which is widely used by researchers for the professional management of information. And if it is well supported then it will certainly help uptake.

  • AJCann said:

    And that's the point, people bring expectations to Friendfeed with them. If you're viewing FF as a research tool, it seems object-oriented. But our first year students, who share many objects through the bookmarklet, Google Reader, delicious, etc, see it as an identity-centred resource because that is their expectation, a) because of their prior experience of Facebook, and b) because they are seeking to build a peer support network.

  • rpg said:

    My feeling is that it's a waste of time and energy building a social network for scientists, that doesn't actually add value. If you have a productivity tool for scientists then build a network on top of that, sure: but other platforms (FriendFeed, Facebook) already exist, are well known; we already have logins for them–so why not use them? (The irony of my support of NN is not lost on me (; )

    The marketing techniques used by the promoters of ResearchGate also make me leery of anything that comes from the same stable, but that's another matter.

  • Florian said:

    I seriously do not get the point of FriendFeed (and ScienceFeed neither). I've had a glance over it now and I wonder what it can do that Facebook can't…?

    Answers will be appreciated.

  • Florian said:

    OK, I missed out on the aggregation a litte. But still I can discuss “objects” on Facebook just as well.

  • Anna said:

    Where I find a big difference from facebook, and use in scientific discussion, is that highly discussed topics float to the top of the feed and repeat, even when you are not directly involved (unlike facebook where you need to interact with a comment first). In addition, the 'like' mechanism acts more like a 'save for later' mechanism as you can search a list of your likes (so I use it to bookmark stuff, rather than necessarily 'liking' it per se). These are both things I find have an advantage when discussing science, and that I sometimes miss when interacting socially on FB.