Vitality – what’s next?

Back when Facebook announced it’s News Feed (then called the “mini-feed”) which aggregated all your friends activity onto a single, easy to scan page, there was a firestorm of controversy. What upset people the most was that this feed, which consisted of updates that, up until that time, had been scattered across each of your friends pages, now pulled everything together into a page which, at the time, seemed jarringly out of context. A single aggregation point was the right thing to do from a technical standpoint. Much like an RSS Reader made it easier to scan through the latest posts on your favorite blogs, the Facebook News Feed streamlined the process of keeping up with the latest activities of your friends.

What didn’t sit right with the Facebook users was that by making the process of keeping up with your friends easier and more efficient, it crossed an unwritten privacy boundary. It was like that first time you looked up a phone number or someone’s name on Google. It felt like you were looking at something you weren’t supposed to see. Seeing these events spread out over multiple profiles, in context with other activities was normal but to have it all pulled together was almost too powerful and it was a shock.

Facebook News Feed detail

It’s only a few months later and now we think nothing of it. The fact that Facebook can pull this information together for us is nothing special and this kind of aggregation is now, as my colleague Todd Sampson likes to say, “the cost of admission” for any social network site. The one issue I’ve had with closed systems is that you’re limited with what you can do with data that you put in there. As soon as the News Feed was launched, I was poking around looking for the RSS output of the feed. The same when the Facebook API was launched. I was disappointed to find that Facebook did not allow you to pull the News Feed updates out of Facebook.

This is by design of course. The News Feed is much more than a simple aggregation of your friends activity. There’s an algorithm working behind the scenes that calculates the proximity of your friends and does some filtering to show you more events from friends that you may care about and less from friends that are only tangential to you. We now know that the Facebook News Feed is also a key venue for Facebook’s advertising where endorsements and call outs to products are services are beginning to appear inline along with your friends’ updates.

It’s inevitable that other social networks would catch on of course. Reservations about privacy melted away when publishing your profile activity became not only accepted but expected. The transformation was further solidified when Twitter changed the concept of friending into following. No longer did you need to declare someone a friend (which carries a social expectation) in order to follow their updates. It is now acceptable to follow someone’s updates because you trust their taste. You may not know them personally but you could still be a fan.

Now we see multiple versions of the News Feed appearing on the front page of other sites front and center as a key part of what they offer. Plaxo Pulse was the first out the gate and shortly after Friend Feed launched with their simple aggregation. Wink as well and most recently I noticed that even LinkedIn has joined into the game.

winkPlaxo Pulse

Friend FeedlinkedIn

Vitality, as we call it at Yahoo, is nothing new. What is most exciting about the aggregation of events, particularly when it’s done across open systems as it is in Plaxo, Friend Feed, and Wink, is what you can do with that data. If we go back to the RSS Reader example earlier, it’s one thing just to pull together events for your users’ convenience. What is so much more interesting is when you can begin to infer things based on the collective activity that you pull together.

There’s a lot more work to do. In the same way that the MyBlogLog Hot in My Communities feature and the My Yahoo Top Picks module bubble up interests, or the Google Reader Trends page, and Bloglines Beta Top 1000 reflect popularity, the next step is to apply similar analysis to social activity.

What kinds of tools and features would you like to see from an aggregation of your social vitality?

2 Replies to “Vitality – what’s next?”

  1. Facebook offers subscriptions for many of its features, including posted items, notifications, and status updates. Most feeds are added to web-based feed readers (My Yahoo!, Google Reader, Bloglines, etc.) and might expose private user data through each site’s search function in the process. Syndicating an individual’s personal data can be a bit tricky, and many companies err on the side of privacy/safety.

    Adding secure communication to each feed (HTTPS) with proper per-user authentication is one way to address the issue but likely raises the support cost. We usually let users experiment with advanced features that could possibly cause injury, but in this case they might also expose the personal crushes, activities, or fears of their 200 closest “friends.”

  2. Hi Niall,

    I know about the existing Facebook feeds. What I’m interested in is the actual content of the News Feed that’s on my home page which they don’t make available. As you point out, making my News Feed subscription-ready would probably backfire for Facebook because users that have their profiles buttoned up and only available to friends will need to have their updates filtered out so they don’t “leak” into the open. There’s too much room for misunderstanding and error.

    I remember this particular problem with the original Bloglines. People would add authenticated RSS feeds into their Bloglines reader and not realize that these feeds, if they were not careful, would be added to a shared database which any Bloglines subscriber could search and read.

    I don’t think Facebook will ever be able to open up completely just because the expectation is that what you put into Facebook is going to be viewed by those you explicitly add as a connection. The advantage goes to any service that’s out on the open web aggregating social events that are already being published to the world for all to see. These services will be unencumbered by the privacy issue, they’ll have more freedom to experiment and build something game-changing.

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