New site to consolidate online lives

Some day in the near future, online stalking could get a lot easier.

If FriendFeed — a new Web site developed by four former Google employees — succeeds, Internet surfers will be able to track their crushes’ online activity using a variety of services ranging from Facebook photos to Amazon.com book purchases to blog entries with a single click of the mouse. Currently in a trial stage, FriendFeed allows users to access a news feed that assimilates others’ online activity in one place.

Founders Bret Taylor, Jim Norris, Paul Buchheit and Sanjeev Singh said they plan to launch a complete, public version of FriendFeed in a matter of months, once they have worked through some glitches they have encountered in development. Yalies interviewed said they were curious about the new resource but skeptical of its long-term utility.

The expertise of FriendFeed’s creators is considerable: while at Google, Taylor and Norris helped launch Google Maps, and Buchheit and Singh worked to create Gmail. Taylor said the need for a service like FriendFeed is undeniable given the overload of information available on the Internet.

“Our main goal is to make it really easy to share all the stuff you find around the Web, no matter what services your friends happen to use,” Taylor said. “We have support from about 23 different sites from the Internet, and anytime you interact with those sites, your friends will find out about it.”

Elis who have heard of FriendFeed said they think it will appeal to those who socialize on the Internet on a regular basis, but for those who choose to remain unplugged, the service will not offer much. Lanre Akintujoye ’09 said he sees merit in the concept of FriendFeed, but, as a self-described “Facebook minimalist,” he would not find it very useful.

“I haven’t even heard of some of the things they [subscribe to], because I’m not a big Web browser,” he said.

On the other end of the spectrum are students such as Daniel Spector ’11, who subscribes to 18 of the 23 applications FriendFeed currently integrates. But even Spector said he has used most of the sites only once, on a passing whim, and he thinks FriendFeed might waste time rather than save it. Since the only sites in FriendFeed’s collection he uses regularly are Twitter, Facebook and Digg, Spector said the service would not be particularly helpful to him.

FriendFeed is currently available to a limited number of trial users. The trial process has only been underway for a few months, but Taylor said while testers have raised several complaints, concerns like those voiced by Yalies about the site’s limited utility have not been among them. Taylor said the Web site serves a much broader target audience than it would seem.

“What’s neat about it is that, as long as some of your friends use a lot of these sites, or if you have a lot of friends who use one of these sites, it’s really useful,” Taylor said. “It favors the lazy — as long as a few of your friends go around Google Reader and read lots of blogs, your FriendFeed will be populated with lots of interesting stuff to read. The few that are active make others’ FriendFeed more active and full of content.”

Some of the problems trial FriendFeed users have complained about include the sheer magnitude of information that shows up on their accounts, Taylor said. Jessica Olson ’08 said she might be interested in learning more about the service but is concerned about getting lost in a flood of updates.

“Even if it did simplify things, it’d be overwhelming,” Olson said.

In an attempt to address this problem, FriendFeed employees are working on creating a filtering mechanism to further sift through the collection of information presented on the site. The creators said they are also fixing several other programming glitches.

From the founders’ perspective, the utility of FriendFeed goes beyond distilling the complex array of blogs, photos, news, music and videos on the Web into one interface. Taylor said the site also adds to the social dimension of Internet activity by directing only relevant information about one’s friends into the feed.

“It is really neat to see people who aren’t that Internet savvy enjoy this because it represents a way to sift through the content of the Internet that makes it personally relevant to them,” Taylor said. “When you see that your friend Jon likes [a news story], that takes on new meaning — it becomes a social experience.”

Many Yale students said they accept the notion of FriendFeed as a theoretically useful tool, but in the context of the recent boom in online social networking, FriendFeed is another step in a questionable direction. Michelle Ho ’11 said FriendFeed might perpetuate an increasing dependence on the Internet as the means to interact with other people.

“[FriendFeed] is logical because the reason you use these sites is to share photos and information with your friends,” Ho said. “But the trend of tracking your friends’ online activity and the display of personal information dilutes communication in real life. I think even Facebook went too far.”

Despite the obstacles facing the FriendFeed team before the site’s public launch, Taylor said he is looking forward to watching the impact of FriendFeed on the broader online community. If anything, he said, working on FriendFeed has been a challenge that was made possible by his experience at Google.

“It’s funny — being in Silicon Valley, we’ve always had that entrepreneurial bug,” Taylor said. “We worked at Google for four to five years, and we got antsy.”

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