Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Borg moment and the end of Friendfeed

Apparently Facebook finally decided to shutdown Friendfeed after several years of declining usage. I only found out because NeilDeepak  and Cameron wrote posts about this. Although I was a heavy user I ended up moving with the crowd after the Facebook acquisition. For those that never used it but are familiar with Twitter or Facebook it might be hard to understand why some people like myself are so disappointed with it's decline. Friendfeed was simply leaps ahead of anything at the time as a mechanism for sharing information and organizing discussions around these shared items. In fact, although there has been no further development for 5 years it is still much better than Twitter for these things. As Neil mentioned in his post, it is hard to understand why this is the case. Maybe because comments were attached to a shared item and not limited to 140 characters so you could actually have meaningful discussions. Unlike forums the shared items were a feed/river so there was the same impression and emphasis on immediacy as twitter. However, recently commented items would jump up on your feed which would tend to foster discussions. It is possible that it only worked because those that joined were the right people at the right time. Maybe it would not scale with the trolls. We will never know.

For those that never used it I want to write down the best experience I ever had on Friendfeed. I was attending the ISMB conference in Toronto in 2008. The number of geeks at this conference is understandably high and there were many Friendfeed users attending. At the time Friendfeed had already introduced the notion of a "room" which was a separate public feed that anyone could join. Similar to tracking a hashtag on twitter. A feed for the conference was set up and many people at the conference joined and started participating. In fact, the feed is still available here so you can go have a look for the time being. This was the first time I really had the impression of connecting to a hive-mind. In this back channel tens of people were taking notes and giving comments about the several simultaneous talks. During keynotes you could even see, as the speaker was changing topics, different people would take up the slack of taking notes and commenting according to their own expertise. Unlike twitter these didn't feel like we were drowning  in a sea of uncoordinated messages. You could always focus your attention on just one thread (i.e. a shared item) and its comments at any time. It worked so well that we ended up using the notes to write up a conference report that got published in PLOS Comp Bio.

That community of scientists and other open science advocates moved on to Twitter after the Facebook acquisition. Twitter usage by scientists and in particular by prominent established scientists also really took off at around the same time. Although it serves a similar purpose Twitter really is more of a broadcasting mechanism than a discussion forum. It is a pity that a lesser solution won out. Still, the amount of open scientific discussions that are going on online these days is just phenomenal and a drastic change from my PhD days.