Friendfeed versus Twitter

Twitter might be the newest new thing for millions of Internet users but, for most of Silicon Valley’s hardcore geekerati, it is Friendfeed that remains the hottest social networking application. If Twitter is emerging as the Microsoft of the emerging real-time Web, then Friendfeed – which unveiled a major upgrade to its interface last week -- is akin to Apple in its ability to muster a noisy following of hardcore evangelists.

Friendfeed, which was founded in 2007 by a group of ex Google engineers, is a real-time aggregation service that automatically incorporates updates from Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and any other online content published with an RSS feed. Dramatically more subtle and complex than Twitter, Friendfeed is currently the most ambitious social media application on the Internet, particularly in the ways in which it empowers real-time public and private conversation between its subscribers.

What is striking about Friendfeed is the remarkably passionate responses it elicits from normally sane people. For me and other mainstream web users who crave simplicity and ease-of-use from their Internet tools, it remains an irritatingly over-engineered and elliptical application, the Internet version of Rubik’s Cube. And this may explain why Friendfeed currently has less than 7% of Twitter subscribers and has fewer users now that it had six months ago. Yet, for highly credible Silicon Valley pundits like my fellow Gillmor Gang members Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte and Steve Gillmor, Friendfeed represents the next big thing in social media.

In spite of my own admittedly rather irrational antipathy to Friendfeed, I certainly urge everyone to sign up with this free service and try it. Whatever one thinks of Friendfeed, this real-time application is, without question, a major technological achievement which, in some shape or form, represents the future of the real-time Internet. The most interesting way for non-geeks to try Friendfeed is to test-drive it alongside Twitter. The chances are that you’ll either love or hate it. Like a good Rorschach Test, your reaction to Friendfeed is probably an accurate indicator of your general attitude to the conversational value of real-time social media.

Given Twitter’s phenomenal popularity with mainstream Internet users, it’s hard now to imagine that Friendfeed can now effectively compete as a straightforward consumer application. As Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington wrote last week, “Friendfeed is in danger of becoming the coolest app no one uses”. But perhaps Friendfeed will emerge as a platform for third party social media developers who can add useful new features – such as real-time video or audio.

That said, I do think that it is unwise to ignore the significance of Friendfeed’s hardcore evangelists. A year or two ago, many people (including myself) were sneering at the value of Twitter. But early adopters like Robert Scoble, Leo Laporte and Steve Gillmor persevered with the service and now Twitter is growing by more than 30% a month and, according to the web metrics firm Comscore, had around 10 million unique visitors in February. Maybe it is Scoble, Laporte and Gillmor, and not me, who are right about Friendfeed. I hope so. Little would please me more than to be proved wrong about the value of Friendfeed.