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Friendfeed for Research? First impressions of ScienceFeed

16 February 2010 65 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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  • http://friendfeed.com/mcdawg Graham Steel

    Thanks for this, Cameron :-)

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mfenner Martin Fenner

    Thanks for the post. ScienceFeed has potential, and being focused on science can be an advantage. It is for example probably easier than with FriendFeed to make ScienceFeed work closely with CiteULike, Connotea, Mendeley, Nature Network, etc. ScienceFeed will not work if it is simply the microblogging part of ResearchGate.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/maverickny Sally Church

    Nice post, Cameron. Agree with Martin – if Sciencefeed integrates services well it could work very well.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/cameronneylon Cameron Neylon

    Definitely agree Martin, there is potential here, particularly if we can build an effort that really takes our best current knowledge and pushes the potential of federation. Maybe this also solves the business model problem? Less sure of that. I am going to try and follow up with some design suggestions. But the social issues are a biggy as well..

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/aarontay aarontay

    Sciencefeed interface is an exact clone of friendfeed down to the "my discussion", "best of the day". Surprising it doesn’t allow you to add RSS feeds.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/waltcrawford Walt Crawford

    I like your take, Cameron–even without seeing ScienceFeed. As a nonscientist/"library person" interested in *some* issues related to science, I’d never think to approach ScienceFeed…and that may be a good thing for some scientists who’d just as soon avoid the great unwashed. Not so great for those (like you) seeking broader discussions.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/cameronneylon Cameron Neylon

    Ok so we see it as a strength that it can support both kinds of interaction? And why oh why isn’t there a service that integrates things well together in terms of keeping the threaded conversation intact…

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/ajc AJCann

    Agreed, and that’s the concern about Sciencefeed. By Balkanising conversations, will it lose the potential of site like Friendfeed?

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/maverickny Sally Church

    }. It’s much clunkier than Friendfeed, you can only connect up Twitter, FB and FF that I can see, no RSS so that would force aggregation to FF and then import it to ScienceFeed. Fine if FF is still alive but no rooms as yet that I can find. For now, I think FF has more utility but am wondering who the owners/developers of ScienceFeed are?

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/billhooker Bill Hooker

    Sally — SF is from the same people who run ResearchGate. I don’t care for ResearchGate and I particularly dislike this hamstrung FF knockoff with its "scientists only" gatekeeping. Science is insular enough, let’s not make it worse.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mcdawg Graham Steel

    +1 Bill !!

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://network.nature.com/people/etchevers/blog Heather

    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.

  • http://scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/ AJCann

    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.

  • http://friendfeed.com/cameronneylon Cameron Neylon

    Absolutely – I think its a serious risk and the name is therefore very unfortunate. Names have power as I’m sure someone once told us…

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    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.

  • http://friendfeed.com/mfenner Martin Fenner

    ScienceFeed wants to add special features to support conference microblogging. For now they only automatically import using the conference hashtag.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://scienceoftheinvisible.blogspot.com/ AJCann

    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.

  • http://friendfeed.com/sciencefeed Sciencefeed

    Hi guys,thanks for discussing sciencefeed. From now on I will participate on this discussion. Thanks for your initial feedback. When we created sciencefeed, it was pretty clear that it is not smart to build something which is completely new. Friendfeed proved to be a place for referencing easy and fast to scientific content and to discuss it. We want to add features to sciencefeed based on your feedback. I am looking forward to your new ideas, how we can improve sciencefeed in the future. Best Ijad

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://network.nature.com/people/rpg/blog rpg

    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.

  • http://friendfeed.com/mrgunn Mr. Gunn

    Ijad – It sounds like the consensus is 1st – change the name. 2nd – add services 3rd – clarify if this is intended to be a replacement for friendfeed or the microblogging part of ResearchGate

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/cameronneylon Cameron Neylon

    I’m with Mr Gunn, I think positioning is really important. There is a balance between not scaring off the non-professionals and encouraging the professionals but that the core issue is finding that balance.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/sciencefeed Sciencefeed

    Hello Mr. Gunn, and Cameron, our intention is that it should be at one point a replacement for friendfeed and it should connect the various Science 2.0 platforms as mendeley, academia, researchgate in a dynamic way. We will add features, but I do not want to do that without communicating with the community. That’s why we launched it early and with just small additions (compared to friendfeed). I hope that you Mr. Gunn and Cameron can help us thinking of new ideas and applications and building it up to a platform which we as scientists can use on a daily basis. However, this needs some time. I am looking forward to more concrete ideas. Best Ijad

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mndoci Deepak Singh

    Ijad, after having touched the service, I agree with many others that by itself sciencefeed is not so compelling (you know my usual arguments). I think as part of something else, where this kind of information sharing is part of the offering, it becomes more compelling, especially if the right services are supported. I think Mr. Gunn is on the right track.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mndoci Deepak Singh

    Ijad

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/cameronneylon Cameron Neylon

    Ijad, am working on a post looking at what I think such a service should include. Don’t know when I will get to post it though. Hopefully by the end of the weekend.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/sciencefeed Sciencefeed

    Deepak, thanks for the feedback. Yes, I think also that this is a good idea and I hope that we can specify together what these "right services" are. Cameron, cool. I am looking forward to it.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/wjjessen Walter Jessen

    @Ijad: I’ve sent a couple of messages via the ScienceFeed contact form regarding features and issues. Hope they’re getting through to you.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mfenner Martin Fenner

    We are using a ScienceFeed Group for a workshop today and tomorrow. Some observations: messages can’t be added after posting, can’t link to messages, COinS support is a great addition (but only finds the first reference), a bookmarklet to import content (including references) would be great. And of course automatic importing of RSS feeds into groups and personal accounts.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/mfenner Martin Fenner

    We are using a ScienceFeed group for a workshop today and tomorrow. Some observations: messages can’t be edited after posting, can’t link to messages, COinS support is a great addition (but only finds the first reference), a bookmarklet to import content (including references) would be great. And of course automatic importing of RSS feeds into groups and personal accounts.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/sciencefeed Sciencefeed

    @Walter yes, thank you. I replied to you. Did you get my message? They are all on our To Do List. Martin thank you for testing and you are absolutely right with your ideas. We will work on that. Good feedback. Thanks again.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed

  • http://friendfeed.com/wjjessen Walter Jessen

    @Ijad: No, I never received your message.

    This comment was originally posted on FriendFeed