Goodbye, FriendFeed

From Barbara Fister’s Place, March 13, 2013

It has been a long time coming. Still, I’m gutted. Friendfeed is pulling the plug on a platform that has been a big part of my online social life.

Chances are you’ve never heard of FriendFeed. It was a bit under the radar, but those who used it were avid. It had a simple, uncluttered, and intuitive interface where you could form groups, have RSS feeds stream to the group, and have discussions – with any active discussion popped to the top of the page. It allowed anonymity (which can be extraordinarily useful) and private messages, which is where surprise parties were planned. Facebook aquired FriendFeed in 2009, but somehow it kept going. Every time it went down for a few hours there were panicked backup plans made, but it always bobbed back up – until the final official announcement was made.

Maxine Clarke, who I’ve written about before, introduced me to FriendFeed by inviting me to join the Crime and Mystery Fiction group. Knowing that Maxine was not only a trustworthy guide to crime fiction but also extremely informed about technology (helping make Nature one of the most lively interactive and trend-setting web presences for science), I dipped my toe in. I found a lot of bloggers who I’d already discovered and met far more. It was easy to go to one place and get a stream of new reviews, interesting links, and companionship. Though the room functioned primarily as a place where we could share RSS feeds and occasionally comment, real friendships bloomed. I intend to stay in touch with those who I met there, but it won’t be as easy. A Facebook group has been set up where refugees can go, but I’m not a friend of Facebook, so will have to update my Feedly links and try to make the rounds of blogs to keep up the interaction there, which is where a lot of the more extended conversations happened, anyway. I sensed a kind of unspoken preference for taking comments to the original blog whenever possible so as not to dilute their impact.

It will be trickier to replicate the community found among librarians in the LSW FriendFeed group. After getting to know my way around the Crime and Mystery Fiction group, I poked around and stumbled across what has been my go-to professional (and just-for-fun) group ever since. FriendFeed has been the Library Society of the World’s most active hangout for some time. Previously Meebo was an LSW space. It was acquired by Google and killed in 2012 in hopes we’d all flock to Google+. These ceremonial sacrifices don’t always pan out, do they?

Rather than use the platform as a shared RSS feed, it was a conversational space. It wasn’t unusual for the threads to run to dozens of comments. Members would raise problems (is this database acting weird for you, too? can someone check this reference for me?), professional issues (open access, privacy, the behavior of publishers or funding agencies, how to do cool things for our communities), and a lot of giddy fun and companionship. Because there are a number of technically adept members, we’ll probably have another meeting place of some kind rigged up by the time the plug is pulled. We’ll pass the hat to pay the costs. There isn’t really a commercial substitue for what we have ensjoyed until now, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.

It’s hard to know what makes a social media platform work for a group of people who come together in a community. It’s clearly not the infratructure itelf. The two FriendFeed rooms I participated in regularly used the affordances of the platform very differently. It really is the people and the way they develop a common identity through individual practices (choosing what to post and how to respond), a means of welcoming new members and celebrating membership, and the indirect development of group norms. How those norms evolved in this space is truly mysterious.to me. There were no posted rules. There was some kind of administrative status some members took on, steering with a very light hand on the rudder – mostly refreshing feeds if they stopped working. Every now and then there would be drama in either of these groups, but even at its most heated it never seemed to fundamentally alter the nature of the community. Perhaps the relative obscurity of FriendFeed made it unattractive to trolls and spammers. In any case, these were remarkably civil, balanced, and inviting spaces.

One other thing true of both groups: they may be tight, but they are diverse. FriendfFeed earned users around the globe. I was intrigued when the news broke to see Tweets about it in Turkish, French, Spanish, and (above all) Italian. In fact, some Italian programmers have knocked out a replacement. For the LSW, the mix was in library types (academic, public, and special) and geography (U.S., Canadian and British librarians as well as a Singaporean member and others). The Crime and Mystery Fiction group was smaller in membership but more widely distributed geographically, with members from the UK, Australia, Canada, the US, Spain, Denmark, and probably other places I’m forgetting at the moment. These international reading communities create an interesting situation – the buzz around books doesn’t respect the regional boundaries around rights. Books are released at different times (or not at all) in different regions with different covers and, often, titles. It will be interesting to see whether online commerce and these international reading communities might break down some of those borders or whether the separate sale of rights by region will continue to feature in the publishing world or perhaps even be artificially reinforced, with DVDs splitting the world into regions and the streaming of videos restricted by location – the sort of control of audiences that seems so self-defeating.

Finally, one thing that is lost as the plug is pulled – the record of those conversations. FriendFeed had an excellent search feature which I often used to find a link or retrace a debate that I needed for one reason or another. That won’t be possible. As we entrust more and more of our lives to companies that come and go, the words we wrote, the things we think of as ours, are not under our control. As we lose our community gathering places, we also lose our histories. Something to think about as we live with our heads in the cloud.