Sunday, February 21, 2010

The stream
CC BY 2.0
Google unveiled recently Yet Another Try at social networking in the form of Google Buzz. It is a social network borrowing heavily from Friendfeed, a website build by ex-googlers. If you are not familiar with Friendfeed here is a post that goes through some of its features.

One interesting thing about all this proliferation of social networks and feed aggregators is seeing their evolution over time. Over the past couple of years some of their features became somewhat standard. You could say that this is just because some websites keep stealing ideas from others but it also says which features seam to be useful and which implementations are intuitive to theirs users.

One idea that is central and common to all of these social websites is the concept of the stream. A list of updates from your contacts in the network typically ordered by time that you can interact with either by commenting or more simply by stating that you find that interesting. These actions are in turn propagated to your own contacts and so on.

It is impressive to see how this simple idea became so widespread in so little time. Facebook estimates that it has over 400 million active users. If Facebook was a country it would the 3rd most populous after China and India. We had plenty of ways to interact with friends and colleagues online before these social networks arrived (Email and instant messaging among others) so why did they become so popular ? The first few iterations of the stream reminded me a lot of those mass emails and chain emails from a few years back. It is also somewhat similar to how people were using their status in instant messaging tools to broadcast news about themselves. These two examples show that when given the tools people enjoy telling their contacts what their up to.
Status in instant messaging have no history and broadcasting jokes by email is very impolite as most people use email for work. So broadcasting to your social network in an non-intrusive way fills a need that previous tools could not solve well before.

Its clear that the stream is here to stay but where is it heading to ?

The stream localized
GPS enabled phones let us track our position and share it with the world. I am personally not comfortable with this but plenty of people are using tools like Foursquare and now Google Buzz to share their coordinates. In Foursquare users can play games where they "check-in" to places to unlock tips and badges. For business owners this could be used to give rewards for loyalty to their costumers.
It is easy to imagine how interesting it would be to get tips on what to eat when "checking in" to a restaurant or finding out that your friend is just around the corner in a cafe you like. Still, you don't have to be too paranoid to start thinking about the implications of telling the world where you are. "Please Rob Me" is the name of a website that, as the name implies, was created exactly to raise awareness to these privacy concerns.

Most likely these tools will iterate through changes in their privacy settings. For example, Google Latitude lets you share your location only to a select group of people or applications as well as letting you set the level of detail shared (ex. exact position versus area/city).  Given the many business opportunities around location based advertisement companies will certainly try to make location sharing a standard property of the stream. The advertisement system in the movie Minority Report comes to mind.

Social Searching
After releasing Google Buzz the company also announced that they had acquired the company Aardvark. If you use sites like twitter or many of the other social networks you probably tried to broadcast a question. If you are not sure who exactly knows the answer  there is no harm and casting a wide (and non-intrusive) net to try to find an answer. The term "lazy web" describes this sort of question broadcasting. In twitter there are even simple services organized around these "lazyweb" questions (see Lazytweet as exanple).

Aardvark tries to take this concept a bit further by targeting your questions to people that are more likely to known the answer instead of simply broadcasting to all your network. When you sign up to the service you tell it what subjects you might be able to answer and how often you mind getting some questions. In return you can ask Aardvark any question you want and it will try to route it to an "expert". This sort of social searches are a useful complement to current search engines. Your not supposed to ask questions that are easy to find with Google and it will take longer to get a reply but you can ask more subjective questions and hopefully get very knowledgeable answers.

I have tried asking questions in different social networks and a few times in Aardvark. Predictably the quantity and quality of the replies depends mostly on how specific the question is. Very broad and subjective questions get many useful replies while questions on very specialized topics will probably go unanswered.
The success of such an approach depends on many different factors but it looks like an interesting direction for search.

What do you think ?
In what other ways will we be using the stream ?