FriendFeed crawls Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube so you don't have to.

Inside the Internet.
Aug. 6 2008 7:12 AM

The Lazy Man's Guide to Web 2.0

FriendFeed crawls Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube so you don't have to.

Screenshot of FriendFeed. Click image to expand.
FriendFeed

No, I don't want to use Twitter. I'm way too busy—and, let's be honest, too uninterested (and uninteresting)—to spend all day thumb-typing status updates from my cell phone. That's the problem with Web 2.0 services like Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, Digg, and the rest: They expect me to eagerly upload, type, click, and tweet my life onto the Internet so these tidbits can be served to others. What I really want is to be able to reap the advantages of these sites without having to lift a finger—to see what my friends are up to without having to write anything myself.

The problem is my friends are spread across dozens of different sites—Picasa, Pownce, Plurk, Pandora, Polyvore—and that's just the Ps. Most of them publish to two or three sites at minimum. Figuring out how to navigate each site is more work than I have time for. My fellow tech pundit Robert Scoble posts movies, photos, and text to more than a dozen sites. Can't I just get one page that lists everything Scoble did today?

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I can! A bunch of former Google employees—techies who worked on Gmail and Google Maps—quit their jobs to start FriendFeed, a site that rolls up the output of 43 Web 2.0 services onto one auto-generated page. FriendFeed is basically a custom-tailored home page for people who are obsessed with the Internet. They can create their own FriendFeed page, or you can make one for them. Then, on a single page, you can see what videos they're watching, whom they're chatting with, and what pictures they've uploaded. If they add a DVD to their Amazon wish list, you'll be notified. The beauty of FriendFeed is that it's fully automated and requires no prior knowledge of any of the sites it crawls. You give it a name, and it'll take care of the rest. I typed "Robert Scoble" into FriendFeed's search box. Among the results was a thumbnail photo of Always-On Bobby, plus 15 icons representing different sites he'd incorporated into his FriendFeed account. All I needed to do was click the subscribe button once—done!

Now every time I log in to FriendFeed, I get a page that shows what Scoble—and, to my surprise, some of his friends—are doing online. It looks like one long blog page or a supersized version of the Facebook News Feed. There are news stories shared from Google Reader, strips of photo thumbnails from Flickr, Twitter messages, music from iLike, reviews from Yelp, and videos from something called Seesmic—I don't even know what that is. Nevertheless, it automatically shows up for me.

Facebook and FriendFeed are parallel universes that connect. Facebook is mostly a private estate where you need to log in and can see only content posted by friends who've accepted you. FriendFeed scours the unprotected part of the Internet, letting you grab anything that isn't locked away. I prefer FriendFeed's Spartan single-column format to Facebook's busier layout, which is full of ads and other come-ons. But if you've taken the plunge into Facebook, you can simply read your FriendFeed updates as part of your Facebook News Feed—everything in one place.

One tip: Don't try to read every single entry. Relax. Exhale. Then scroll down the page skimming for anything that grabs your attention. And when a friend asks over e-mail or AIM, "Did you see my post about Steve Jobs today?," just pop over to FriendFeed and search for Jobs' name in the spew. "Yeah, I did. You really nailed it," I type back 12 seconds later.

Because it collates everything in reverse chronological order, FriendFeed is also a great way to keep up with the anti-Scobles—friends who post something once a month. When they do, you'll see it minutes later, near the top of your page.

There's another huge unplanned market for FriendFeed: parents. Setting up a single page of all your kids' Internet accounts is a snap. Even if they haven't signed up at FriendFeed, you can do it for them. Click the button to create an "imaginary friend." Then, click on a service—say, Flickr—and type in your offspring's Flickr user name. FriendFeed goes to Flickr, gets their photo stream, and inserts the pics into your page. Whenever they add a new picture, it'll appear in front of you automatically. Being childless, I used the "imaginary" feature to make photographer Brian Solis and conservative pundit Rachel Marsden my imaginary friends. I can at least pretend to keep great company.

There are two things that separate FriendFeed from the rest of the Web 2.0 pack. First, it doesn't presume I've come to the Internet to get attention rather than pay attention. The site doesn't barrage me with requests to subscribe, upload, or share my own content. Second, it's geared toward one-way relationships rather than the two-way electronic "friendships" you're stuck with on Facebook or MySpace.

I feel the same way about FriendFeed that I did about RSS four years ago, when I gushed about it as a way to speed-read the Net. FriendFeed is largely built on RSS—that's how it grabs your friends' content from most sites. But it goes a step further by collating all your feeds into one stream of text, photos, and videos and laying everything out in a consistent, browser-friendly format. You don't need to manually find and add each one. You don't have to pore through each one separately to see all of this morning's updates. You don't have to learn to visually parse each site separately—FriendFeed makes them all look pretty much the same. It's the closest thing yet to an Internet Panopticon.

Moreover, if you're the playful type who likes to e-mail your friends URLs, pictures, and videos all day, you should take the extra step of setting up a feed with your name and photo on it, as Scoble did. Then, instead of cursing your every appearance in their inboxes, your inundated colleagues can use FriendFeed to stay on top of your world—but only when they feel like it.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.

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