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The trouble with business models (Facebook buys Friendfeed)

11 August 2009 10 Comments

…is that someone needs to make money out of them. It was inevitable at some point that Friendfeed would take a route that lead it towards mass adoption and away from the needs of the (rather small) community of researchers that have found a niche that works well for them. I had thought it more likely that Friendfeed would gradually move away from the aspects that researchers found attractive rather than being absorbed wholesale by a bigger player but then I don’t know much about how Silicon Valley really works. It appears that Friendfeed will continue in its current form as the two companies work out how they might integrate the functionality into Facebook but in the long term it seems unlikely that current service will survive. In a sense the sudden break may be a good thing because it forces some of the issues about providing this kind of research infrastructure out into the open in a way a gradual shift probably wouldn’t.

What is about Friendfeed that makes it particularly attractive to researchers? I think there are a couple of things, based more on hunches than hard data but in comparing with services like Twitter and Facebook there are a couple of things that standout.

  1. Conversations are about objects. At the core of the way Friendfeed works are digital objects, images, blog posts, quotes, thoughts, being pushed into a shared space. Most other services focus on the people and the connections between them. Friendfeed (at least the way I use it) is about the objects and the conversations around them.
  2. Conversation is threaded and aggregated. This is where Twitter loses out. It is almost impossible to track a specific conversation via Twitter unless you do so in real time. The threaded nature of FF makes it possible to track conversations days or months after they happen (as long as you can actually get into them)
  3. Excellent “person discovery” mechanisms. The core functionality of Friendfeed means that you discover people who “like” and comment on things that either you, or your friends like and comment on. Friendfeed remains one of the most successful services I know of at exploiting this “friend of a friend” effect in a useful way.
  4. The community. There is a specific community, with a strong information technology, information management, and bioinformatics/structural biology emphasis, that grew up and aggregated on Friendfeed. That community has immense value and it would be sad to lose it in any transition.

So what can be done? One option is to set back and wait to be absorbed into Facebook. This seems unlikely to be either feasible or popular. Many people in the FF research community don’t want this for reasons ranging from concerns about privacy, through the fundamentals of how Facebook works, to just not wanting to mix work and leisure contacts. All reasonable and all things I agree with.

We could build our own. Technically feasible but probably not financially. Lets assume a core group of say 1000 people (probably overoptimistic) each prepared to pay maybe $25 a year subscription as well as do some maintenance or coding work. That’s still only $25k, not enough to pay a single person to keep a service running let alone actually build something from scratch. Might the FF team make some of the codebase Open Source? Obviously not what they’re taking to Facebook but maybe an earlier version? Would help but there would still need to be either a higher subscription or many more subscribers to keep it running I suspect. Chalk one up for the importance of open source services though.

Reaggregating around other services and distributing the functionality would be feasible perhaps. A combination of Google Reader, Twitter, with services like Tumblr, Posterous, and StoryTlr perhaps? The community would be likely to diffuse but such a distributed approach could be more stable and less susceptible to exactly this kind of buy out. Nonetheless these are all commercial services that can easily dissappear. Google Wave has been suggested as a solution but I think has fundamental differences in design that make it at best a partial replacement. And it would still require a lot of work.

There is a huge opportunity for existing players in the Research web space to make a play here. NPG, Research Gate, and Seed, as well as other publishers or research funders and infrastructure providers (you know who you are) could fill this gap if they had the resource to build something. Friendfeed is far from perfect, the barrier to entry is quite high for most people, the different effective usage patterns are unclear for new users. Building something that really works for researchers is a big opportunity but it would still need a business model.

What is clear is that there is a signficant community of researchers now looking for somewhere to go. People with a real critical eye for the best services and functionality and people who may even be prepared to pay something towards it. And who will actively contribute to help guide design decisions and make it work. Build it right and we may just come.