Defrag 2008 – Flow Apps, Best Practices

A recurring theme at this year’s Defrag conference is the concept of a flow app (see Stowe Boyd post from last year) which I loosely define as an aggregator that brings together multiple information streams into a single view. More broadly known as lifestreaming, these applications are still very basic and only being used by a niche audience of the hyper-connected. Brad Feld said that we live in a world stuck in “manual configuration mode” where the pruning and tuning of our filters is too crude. Call it the Facebook news feed or FriendFeed, these apps are great at bringing together information but are starting to grapple with the problem of how best to filter out nuggets useful information from the collective noise.

In a world where the daily newspaper is a day late, bloggers and the twitter masses filter through the flow and make decisions of what pieces to pass on to their audience. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are stepping in to fill the role of the editor or journalist – we pick and chose from our own personal newswire to decide which bits are worthy of passing on, with or without our own editorial color.

During Dick Hardt’s demo of his sxipper firefox add-in, someone asked what one would consider the feature set of a flow app. Here’s a running list of what I noted. Please add more in the comments.

  • Flow apps are complimentary to existing apps, they monitor activity that takes place on other applications. I take this to mean that the tools are not up to the level where they could replace the raw information flows.
  • A good flow app doesn’t demand completion, it doesn’t provide an unread items count.
  • Default ranking should be on something more like relevance, not straight reverse chronology sort. I would love to see a social sorting algorithm that took into consideration the popularity of an item within your social network (look at subscriptions, in-links, comments, trackbacks) and the freshness of an item.
  • Real-time scrolling. MyBlogLog’s New with Me pages has updated in real-time since it launched. FriendFeed also added a real-time scroll with a helpful pause button. People love ambient animation.
  • Provide visual queues for items that match specific contexts. Is there an item that is from someone you’re meeting with today? Is there a restaurant review about someplace close by? Is there an item from an old friend that hasn’t posted in a long time? Highlight those items as “must reads.”
  • Collapse frequent items from people in your list on media that tends to generate lots of activity. If someone just listened to every track on the Beatles White Album, do you need to know each track? Summarize it intstead (“Chris Law listened to the White Album by The Beatles”).
  • Fade activity that is over 24 hours old into a graphical representation that lets you easily pick out spikes in activity. You shouldn’t care that you missed everything while you were away for the past week while you were away in the Bahamas but it would be nice to know that a ton of activity came through around a particular tag that broke through the baseline.
  • Provide a preference page similar to Google Reader’s Trends view which reflects back your activity and allows for manual tuning and override. I love the fact that Trends has a “most obscure” tab for the feeds you subscribe to that have few readers and provides a helpful trashcan icon to clear them from your subscription list.

Any others?

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