Friendfeed for Research? First impressions of ScienceFeed
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.