5 Things I Learned From My FriendFeed Fast

July 7, 2008

I spent the better part of the last week in Connecticut in celebration of the 90th birthday. I adore my wife’s family but they are about as crazy as I am so keeping up with the wonderful world of FriendFeed was pushed way down the list of target objectives, buried by things like: keeping my sanity, not overdosing on food and sleeping.

I have  always enjoyed the insights of other Feeders following similar sabbaticals so I thought I would share some of my own. These may be, but are not meant to be, universally applied and except for #1 these are listed in no particular order.

I should first clarify something – this is not one of the “we spend too much damn time on the internet” paternalistic screeds I often see us subject one another to. I have never understood the off-handed attacks often made against the internet or communication facilitation tools like Friend Feed.

If I told someone that I had found a bar or coffee house where people regularly met in large groups to socialize and share massive amounts of ideas and information would they be likely to tell me that that is a ridiculous way to spend my time? Of course not, and yet that is what is essentially what I hear people say with regards to social media outlets like Friend Feed all the time.

If there is one thing that every society in the world has in common it is a desire and need for some kind of communication with their fellow citizens. It is a historically verifiable trend that humans have never stopped looking for ways to communicate more information, with more people, more quickly. Friend Feed is yet another example.

1) I must make it a priority to regularly unplug and process. I didn’t realize how badly I needed the 6 hour drive from DC to Connecticut. Between work and adjusting to the joys and demands of fatherhood I rarely take the time anymore to just be.

I recently commented that I have learned more in the last two months using Friend Feed than the previous six combined. I love that but that massive impartation of such vast quantities of information has spawned a myriad of ideas and contemplations and, until last week, I had been unwittingly pushing them aside.

My wife and son headed up to Connecticut a day before I left so I was able to crank the radio, throw open the windows and let my mind run free. Without even trying to I worked through several things I had been thinking about and gained a new level of clarity on some ideas I had been developing. I will be making this kind of activity a regular part of my life from now on.

2) The masses are no where near ready for this stuff. I’m wouldn’t have considered myself an early adopter prior to the revelation that was Twitter and Friend Feed so I interact with people who don’t “get it” every day. That said I have become more and more amazed by just how great the divide is between what is technologically possible and what society-at-large is prepared for.

“Normal” people are just getting the hang of texting – if they use Facebook they likely feel like they are on the bleeding edge. I become more convinced by the day that there has never been a time in recorded history when what is technologically possible so vastly out paces what is realistically viable.

3) The community that currently exists on Friend Feed is unbelievably special. With few exceptions, and allowing for differences in the degree to which the following statement is true, the lowest common denominator of everyone who participates currently understands the benefits of, and has an abnormal desire to expand their ability to communicate with others.

By and large the tone of the communications that occur on Friend Feed are marked by a respectful curiosity for one another’s ideas and opinions. It helps that, like many social media tools, Friend Feed allows users to unobtrusively share bits of information about themselves that, while trivial on their own, aggregate to form a bridge of commonality that greases the naturally rusty wheels of relationship building.

It would have been odd and unnatural if, during last week’s family reunion, I abruptly blurted out “I just listened to Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and I love it!” and yet that is precisely what Friend Feed allows me to do.

Similarly, there are so many bits of information that would ease the process of getting to know someone you just met in person that we either don’t think to share or refrain from sharing because it is unnatural in that setting.

5) Its not going to be like that forever. As much of an optimist as I am I must sadly admit that, in time, human nature will pervert Friend Feed and strip the thing I love about it most.

As Friend Feed becomes more popular, the motivations of its users will become more decentralized and it will devolve into the very things that drove me to Friend Feed in the first place. The comment section of blogger Queen of Spain’s July 4 AOL Hot Seat question will, I fear, become more of the norm
should Friend Feed ever enjoy mass adoption.

As much as #5 saddens me I plan on throughly enjoying every glorious moment until then – if you are not currently using Friend Feed I would HIGHLY encourage you to join the fun. Look me up when you get there – I’ll be the one trying to convince everyone that not every Republican is insufferable.

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My Independence Day Wish

July 4, 2008

Today is the United States of America’s birthday. I am going to forgo the part where I gush about what a wonderful country the U.S.A. is and how blessed I feel to have been born here – you will get enough of that during your History Channel binge today.

As an inanimate object, my country not able to submit the wish it has coming to it so I am going to arrogantly stand in the gap on its behalf. For my friends from other countries I ask that you mold my surrogate birthday wish so that it can apply to your interactions with those of us here.

My wish is simple (and, unfortunately, rife with cliche): disagree without being disagreeable, argue passionately for your view but always remember that it is possible to see a different solution to the same problem.

We live in an imperfect world – some have been unable to rid themselves of ignorant xenophobic or racist tendencies, others despise the country that has given them more than it has ever taken. In neither case are these individuals representative of the whole.

If I, as a Republican, turn a deaf ear to your thoughtful concerns and dismiss them as the errant and biased ramblings of a naive, unpatriotic, liberty despising communist I do us both a disservice – myself because I have lost the opportunity to learn and you because I have ignorantly forced you into a ideological corner inwhich you probably do not belong.

If you, in turn, sweep aside my considerations, labeling me a “neocon” or member of the “Radical Right” bent on legislating morality and eviscerating individual rights through fear mongering, you do the same.

I’ll end with an offer – it is easy to misappropriate the intentions of those who maintain values different from our own – if you consider yourself liberal and, as such, believe that those of us on the other side of the ideological divide bear nothing but contempt for the rest of mankind I invite you to come visit me in DC. We will have drinks with staff members from various parts of the Bush Administration from the White House to the Pentagon to the Department of Homeland security so that you can see that they don’t fit neatly into the Neocon, Hyper-conservative categories you would like to cram them into.

I’m doing my part to better the quality of debate in our beloved country – will you?

What do a liberal blogger and a Republican campaign operative have in common?

June 25, 2008

Well…yea…about as much as you would expect ideologically – what’s great though is that the social web is doing everything I had hoped it would to facilitate an honest debate of ideas.

I have always enjoyed spirited exchanges of ideas – 9 different schools from  K – 12th grade, brought on by a move approximately ever 2.5 years growing up tends to blunt one’s willingness to disassociate with someone because they don’t see eye-to-eye with you. Even so, we tend to congregate with like-minded individuals and eye dissenters warily making it difficult for us to meaningfully interact with a truly broad range of opinions.

Enter social media.

To say that the Twitter and FriendFeed landscapes are dominated by those with a left-of-center mindset would be an understatement. As a result I wasn’t the least bit surprised when my attempts to widen the nozzle on my information stream brought with them a slew of interactions with other users who looked at Republicans the same way Jaguar Paw looked at the strange wooden objects coming ashore at the end of Apocalypto. This is to be expected, its human nature – the less we have in common with or understand about another person, the more likely we are to distrust them and jump to hasty conclusions about them.

The power of social media is that it allows us to find and interact with one another based on common interests. The Twitter and FriendFeed communities are largely made up of social media types – some who work in social media and others, like myself, who are drawn to the new avenues of communication it opens up. Either way there is a common bond that allows us to build a relationship based on a mutual understanding.

Want an example of how powerful this is? Tech blogger Robert Scoble posted a message on his FriendFeed account that Republican Congressman John Culberson uses Twitter sparking a flurry of excited reponses, many of which indicated they would now follow the Texas Congressman as well. I can guarantee you that many of them are not predisposed to enthusiasm over anything that has to do with Republicans – especially when they come in the form of Republicans in Congress. Had Scoble posted something about Representative Culberson’s stance on an issue the comments would have very likely been dominated by generalizations disparaging Republicans but since a common interest was shared Representative Culberson just found scores of new friends on Twitter.

This past Sunday I received an IM from HuffPo/BlogHer/MOMocrat blogger, Queen of Spain asking if I was interested in jumping on her web show later that evening to discuss current political topics including the FISA re-authorization. She runs in a different world than I. A few months ago I didn’t even know she existed (and vise versa) but through our interactions on Twitter we were able to prove to one another that, despite completely different ideological approaches, we both wanted the same thing: to make the world a better place.

I joined her that night and had a blast trying to convince the shows participants that my views (or conservative views in general) were not the result of some nefarious desire to wreak havoc on the lives of others – who knows if I succeeded. What I do know is that, like many voters, I have grown tired of a climate that prevents me from expressing my reasoning for holding a certain position or hearing the reasoning of someone who disagrees. I am thrilled to see that social media is doing exactly what I hoped it would: restoring our ability to disagree without being disagreeable (sound familiar?).

One piece of Tweet-Speak I have yet to hear on FriendFeed

June 18, 2008

I like Twitter, really I do, I just don’t like-like it the way I like FriendFeed.

It occurred to me the other day that I had not heard a certain phrase used on FriendFeed that was in abundant supply in Twitterland:

“If you are not following so-and-so you really should…”

In that phrase a good deal of Twitter’s essence is revealed along with the reason I prefer FriendFeed.

P

Obama is going to break the internet(s)

June 18, 2008

Had dinner with a friend last night – at some inevitable point we began discussing the online chasm that currently (<- attempted optimism) exists between McCain and Obama and he shared this interesting piece of information: When the Obama campaign wants to send an email out to its list of supporters it has to dedicate everyone of its servers (with “its” meaning the company they use to do these things) to the process along with THREE HOURS. Apparently that’s how long it takes to send out 15 million emails.

Rumor has it that the Obama campaign began sending out a blast email right before the Amazon.com and Firefox outages (just kidding).

950,000 versus 150,000 Has Got to Give You Some Kind of Advantage, Right?

June 16, 2008

Politico’s Been Adler has an interesting post asking whether or not McCain can compete with Obama online.

I’m not really fixated on McCain’s admission that he is computer illiterate – like many things he says, it probably would have been better left unsaid but he is who he is and the benefits he derives from speaking so freely outweigh the costs. What continues to interest me is the impact that exponential diffusion will have on this race and the world in general.

The speed with which the technology behind social media applications allows users to share and discuss information is a huge leap forward from where we were prior to the development of these tools. Yes, the internet itself and things like email and chat rooms provided a massive launching pad but just stop for a second and think about the difference in scale.

I can’t think of anyone who, upon finding a story that interests them, copies the link, opens a new email message, populates it with 100 email addresses, adds a short comment and then sends it out. Even if someone were to do that one a regular basis (we are making believe that his nickname would not become “unsubscribe”), hardly anyone he emailed would reply all to add in their comments. And yet every day on applications like FriendFeed that is essentially what is happening – hell I probably have over 100 people following me and I have zero to do with the industry most all of them work in and didn’t even know 99% of them existed a few months ago. Even more (relatively) static applications like Facebook provide an incredible platform to quickly and easily communicate with hug swaths of people.

There is obviously an eternity between here and November so the outcome is by no means set in stone. That said, one has to wonder what kind of advantage the ability to communicate with 950,000 people on Facebook gives a candidate over someone who is only able to use that medium to communicate with an audience 1/9th of the size.

Dear Early Adopters Please Pull Your Heads Out of

June 12, 2008

…the dirt. Sorry to do that – you thought I was going to say sand didn’t you?

I don’t currently have the energy to pull together all the blog posts, comments and FriendFeed threads that have lead to this post so I will be brief.

Stop freaking flogging yourselves about the cycle you go through when you hear about new applications that have the potential to do everything we all believe our current level of technology should allow us to do. It is important that you do exactly what you are doing (OK, one link so you can see a description of the cycle I am referencing).

That cycle is extremely valuable as vets these new products, identifying their weaknesses, shaping their interfaces, determining their value, etc. If you, as an uber-user, who appreciates these new products because you readily see their potential value can’t figure out a freaking need for a product WHO WILL? No one.

PS Keep the FriendFeed fire hose on – I’ve learned more in the past month than in the last 6 combined!

Pssst…Microscopes Weren’t Meant For Star Gazing

June 9, 2008

This isn’t quite finished but what actually ever is? I am becoming increasingly frustrated with a growing number of posts definitively stating what is or isn’t right with FriendFeed or Twitter and how we should or shouldn’t be using these tools. On one hand these are simply more ideas thrown into the mixing bowl – ideas that will help all of us work through a very new set of concepts. On the other hand, as the title of this post suggests, I feel like we have discovered a new planet and are trying to understand its importance by analyzing a 1-inch by 1-inch plot of dirt.

I am quite certain that there will be many that believe I am overstating the importance of the communication shift that tools like FriendFeed and Twitter represent. That is understandable since services like these utilize technologies already in place and familiar to us. (Much like mobile phones were conceptually similar to home phones – but you will be hard pressed to convince me that mobile phones have not had a massive impact on our world.)

In a FriendFeed discussion the other day Alexander van Elsas posited that he wasn’t sure “if we are at the start of a new era of interaction” because “Only the scale differs.” To me – scale is everything.

Why Scale Matters

The central goal of the technologies that have shaped and defined the world we live in has always been to facilitate an expansion of our ability to share information. The innovations that have truly altered the way we communicate have, and always will, be those tools that expand our abilities exponentially.

The shift from ink and quill to fountain pen was surely a welcome change but did it massively alter communication? Of course not. What about the printing press? Technically, the printing press was merely a change in scale wasn’t it? And yet, that change – the ability to make a greater number of copies of a document – completely altered the history of the world.

I believe the concepts represented by applications like FriendFeed and Twitter offer an expansion of our ability to share information that is large enough to again change the world we live in. The contrast of life before and after mass adoption of technologies like these may not be as stark as the before and after periods surrounding the development of the printing press but the impact will be similar. Here is why.

The Inevitable Change

If you were able to create a formula that tracked the speed with which information could be shared that also accounted for the number of people that information could be shared with on average I have no doubt that a graph of communications from the beginning of recorded history would show a constant increase.

I state the obvious to illustrate that a constant, unstoppable force expanding the speed and scope of the dissemination of information has always existed. This is why the concepts of FriendFeed and Twitter will, at some point, inevitably become an intricate part of the fabric of our daily lives.

We have already experienced some seismic shifts in the way we communicate and nothing highlights the impact these changes have had better than blogs. It is hard for us to conceptualize the impact blogs have had because we can’t turn back the clock and replay the last few years without them and, like frogs in a pot of slowly boiling water, the changes seem fairly incremental to us. Even so, the accountability and additional sources of information blogs provide have dethroned a media giant (Rather) and forced corporations and political candidates to take greater care with the public statements they make.

These alterations of the status quo occurred because a wider pool of individuals, each with knowledge and insights unique to them, were able to take a piece of information and add to it. The more this happened, the greater the volume of information shaped the story. Rather and his team had a piece of information, they no doubt sought the input of several others while determining whether and how to share the information and based on pre-blog level of thinking they probably felt pretty good about the evidence they had in hand. The newly expanded scale of individuals who could add their information to the story provided a much different conclusion.

The underlying concepts of emerging social media applications will immensely amplify our access to different sources of information, the speed with which that information can be passed along and the scope of its potential recipients. Take my experience with FriendFeed as an example – through existing communication mediums like email and reading and commenting on blog posts I would NEVER have interacted with any of the people I exchange thoughts with now on a daily basis. If you have had a similar experience, think back over the last month and try and remove EVERY new thing you have learned or opinion that has altered your own thoughts in any way as a direct result of a social media application. While impossible to do it at least gives some sort of idea of what kind of impact the concepts that power these applications will have when mass adopted.

The technology exists to give each of us the ability to share any activity we wish, from any location we choose, with anyone we would like – at this point it just needs to be developed and applied. I firmly believe that the application of those technologies to our daily lives will dramatically change the world we live in – whether we realize it or not.

…but don’t get lost in there

June 4, 2008

I wanted to briefly follow up on yesterday’s post because I get the feeling sometimes that the people instigating and taking part in the social media debates that have become ubiquitous on FriendFeed are unaware of exactly what it is they are participating in.

It is a rare thing to be able to watch a large group change, grow and work through a concept in real time. Many times paradigm shifts can occur at such a slow rate that it is only after they have taken hold that you realize what just took place. I believe we are in the midst of such a shift right now.

It is unlikely that the general public has ever heard of any of the key players. It is also unlikely that they realize that one of the central characteristics of the change underway is that anyone can become part of the process anytime they wish, from anywhere.

Unfortunately, it will not always be this way – but that doesn’t matter. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, technically, services like FriendFeed or Twitter don’t matter either. In my eyes it’s not the interface that is going to impact our world in such a dramatic way, it’s the foundational concepts they are built on. (I am going to follow this post up with some thoughts about why those concepts are so revolutionary, what benefits they will bring and what we will lose along the way)

The eventual death of unfiltered, unfettered social media as we know it right now has been predicted clearly through thoughtful posts like this and this. As much as I wish it were untrue they are right, human nature dictates that a service like FriendFeed will never be widely adopted in its current form.

In a few years, with rare exception, very few of the individuals who are currently central players in many of the discussions taking place on FriendFeed or Twitter will have gained any wide notoriety than they have today (Maybe Scoble will have become the web’s official talk show host by then – sorry couldn’t resist). Social media applications will be scaled down, repackaged and users will enjoy the ability to instantly share and communicate with a vastly smaller universe of individuals with similar interests.

In the meantime I plan on enjoying the ability to interact with an unfiltered universe of individuals who, whether they know it or not, share one thing in common: they are all, in some way great or small, helping shape one of the most powerful shifts in communication in all of history.

Dear “tech elites” We Need You to Continue Navel-Gazing

June 3, 2008

Updated: Original title misspelled “navel” as “naval” leading some to wonder why I thought they needed to keep their eyes fixed on the high seas. I’m still laughing with at myself for that one…

Alexander van Elsas recently posted his navel-gazing induced thoughts on why he believes many of us are attracted to FriendFeeds “always on” conversation stream and, more importantly, why many of those reasons are built on faulty foundations. In Alexander’s mind many of the discussions in FriendFeed regarding “noise” levels, the need for filtering and social media’s ability to bring “enlightenment and salvation” to the masses are the myopic considerations of a community who has forgotten that there is a larger, much different world of people around them who live their lives in much different ways.

While I would agree that the world at-large is not spending a nanosecond trying to figure out how they could share and access an unlimited stream of information anytime, anywhere, I humbly submit for consideration the idea that Alexander and others immersed in social media with similar opinions just might be falling prey to the very thing that causes them to diminish the importance of the conversations currently underway.

What I don’t think many of the tech and social media types understand – from Scoble and Arrington to individuals like myself who are little more than observers to the madness – is that they are all, right now, in every conversation they have, helping to shape the philosophical and practical applications of these services for the world at large.

I recently added one of Twitter’s luminaries to my LinkedIn account. After scanning her contacts I wrote to her laughing at the fact that at NO point did our contacts intersect.

The fact that I am not a techie-type or social media insider is the very reason I began to emerge myself in the worlds of Twitter and FriendFeed. It is also the reason that I view and filter what is currently happening from atop a somewhat detached perch.

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me is that the bulk of FriendFeed’s current user base are an amalgamation of uber-early adopters, tech vanguards and other PR and marketing types who seek to offer their clients unprecedented knowledge and analysis of new developments in social media. Oh, that and navel gazing is the order of the day in social media land.

Now, navel-gazing could easily be construed as a pejorative so allow me to clarify. In a previous post I posited that classical philosophers would have loved the forums for idea exchange that services like Twitter and FriendFeed create – that was a misstatement on my part. I realized this after another FriendFeed user (Louis Gray natch!) shared the story and one of the comments said that I should better illuminate the connections between each philosophers ideas and Twitter and FriendFeed. What I should have said is that the followers of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates would have loved these services.

On one hand social media services are merely an extension of a movement that has spanned all of time, driven by nothing less than human nature itself. On the other hand these services are so immensely different from anything we are used to that they are completely disrupting virtually every aspect of our lives.

The Historical Drive for the Diffusion of Information

I am not a historian but as I look back over time I see a consistent pattern of the development of tools to diffuse information faster and more efficiently. The innovations seem to be borne of the same innate human desire to share information.

I touched on this a little in the Plato post but each new technology has been developed with the specific intention of broadening the reach of information. From the creation of written language, to the development of ink and parchment, to the printing press, the moveable-type printing press, the telephone, the radio, the television, mobile phones and finally the internet humans have never stopped looking for new ways to broaden the reach of information.

Today’s technologies – call them social media, web2.0, whatever you want – are not only a natural extension of what appears to be a prime human directive but an exponential increase that eclipses all previous attempts because as amazing as all of these previous methods of communication have been they have largely lacked one thing: the ability to facilitate instantaneous mass interaction.

Disruption on a Massive Scale

As I stated before I agree with Alexander’s assertion that the world at large is largely unaware (even uninterested) of applications like FriendFeed. The development and adoption of the mobile phone (and subsequently mobile devices providing email and web service) was jarring enough. “I have a phone at home, I even have an answering machine, why the hell would I need to be able to talk to anyone, anywhere at anytime?” was a common refrain when mobile phones first came out. Try living without one today. (Note: We are all aware that there are still millions of people who, by choice, or due to economic restraints, still don’t use mobile phones. It would be impossible to discuss any of these new technologies without focusing on how they relate directly to the segments of the world’s population that can and do use these kinds of technologies)

In much the same way individuals look at something like FriendFeed and think “I have email, I even have a Delicious account, why would I need to be able to instantly share information or interact with others?” This is the question that the “tech elite,” as Alexander calls them, are debating day in and day out. Whether they know it or not their points and conclusions will continue to shape the ways in which these technologies are eventually presented to and adopted by the public.

I was recently describing why applications like FriendFeed are so important to our society to a skeptical friend who happens to be an attorney. I asked him to name the individual he believed to be the preeminent legal authority alive today. I then asked him if he had a relationship with that individual that allowed him to shadow this great thinker for an entire year, not only seeing what he read but hearing his thoughts about the things he had just read – what he agreed with, where the author was wrong, etc – if he thought that he would be a better attorney because of it. My friend’s response was obvious: “of course.”

That to me is the power of these new technologies.

In my opinion services like FriendFeed and Twitter are only the tip of the iceberg. Their existence reshapes the way we function and communicate and in turn will give rise to the cross-application of the core concepts of these applications to other areas of communication.

I was driving home the other day and listening to my ipod – a song came on and I instinctively reached for a button so I could immediately share the fact that I loved this song with my social network. It wasn’t there.

Later I was watching a fascinating documentary on our nation’s complete history of nuclear weapon testing. Again I instinctively grabbed the remote to send the show to friends I knew would enjoy it. It wasn’t there. I also found myself wanting to be able to interact with others on-screen through my tv, to look up more details on the web and share them, to engage in discussions about what I was seeing. Those buttons weren’t there either.

But they could be and they will.

The services that some of us are using to view and comment on a constant stream of information from a constantly expanding social network is unlike just about anything we have ever experienced. Although it utilizes the same web technologies it is such a drastic departure from the web capabilities we are used to that it makes the web in its previous form seem like a stone tablet with pictures. As a result it is going to take the public a while before they can wrap their heads around something that, once again, completely changes the way in which they interact and communicate. The conversations currently taking place on FriedFeed and elsewhere will be one of the largest contributors to whatever form these applications finally take to facilitate mass adoption so navel-gaze on dear tech-elite.