Escape from social network frenzy?

From FriendFeed to Pulse and Digsby, there's no shortage of sites that want to help you make sense of it all. Meet the "lifestreamer."

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read

With all the talk about social network aggregators over the past few weeks, you'd think they were going to reverse global warming.

Technology blogs have been chirping enthusiastically about "lifestreaming" services like FriendFeed and Socialthing, which claim to provide an answer to growing complaints about "social-networking fatigue." They sort updates across networking and community sites into a single destination--which, in a sense, actually might be the social-media world's equivalent of reversing global warming.

Unfortunately, they still don't get rid of the hot air.

Let me get this straight: The last time I checked, I had accounts on Facebook, MySpace.com, Twitter, Flickr, Plaxo, Digg, Tumblr, Pownce, and probably a bunch of others I'm forgetting--that's not even counting whatever I do with my Google and Yahoo accounts. Now I'm supposed to choose between Pulse, FriendFeed, Digsby, Socialthing, Spokeo, Profilactic, and goodness knows what other start-ups that offer me the ability to aggregate my contacts' activity from all the aforementioned social networks, and more. Oh, great.

Don't get me wrong. I think we need some way to tidy up the messy social Web. What OpenID is trying to do for log-in and password management, lifestreaming services are hoping to accomplish for the voyeuristic itch to know exactly what all our online contacts are doing. That's a good thing.

"The big sell for these sorts of products is the tipping point at which users will see these as a viable alternative to manage their many profiles," social media strategist Oz Sultan told me in an interview. He compared it to the rise of universal instant-messaging clients like Adium and Trillian several years ago, which took off amid the disconnect between chat software from AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, and more. "It becomes either overkill or a system resource hog," Sultan said.

But taking overkill and putting it all in one place doesn't mean that it's not overkill anymore. Consider it social-networking's first identity crisis.

To anyone with more than three or four social-networking profiles, lifestreaming services should be a godsend. That is, until you consider the flip side: too much information, and for the most part, not much flexibility on the picking-and-choosing front. A single, giant feed of dozens of Flickr photo albums ("Grand Canyon Vacation Album #3!") alongside Facebook status updates ("Brad is at the office") and Twitter minutiae ("I really need a shower!!!") turns us on to the realization that even our friends broadcast a whole lot of dumb stuff that we don't really care to read about.

"Right now, we just simply feed all this stuff in, and it can be a bit overwhelming," said Matt Galligan, founder of Socialthing. One of the company's goals, he explained, is to be able to showcase "interesting" updates without requiring the user to do a whole lot of manual prioritizing. "Getting the most important stuff to you is what I really want to do," he said.

To an extent, the lifestreaming services have an excuse. "A lot of (lifestreaming) is early to market," Sultan said. This is, after all, the fast-paced world of Web applications, where it's common to announce or roll out a product eons before it's truly ready (hello, OpenSocial). With small start-ups, it's less likely that someone else will replicate the idea first, although the fact that there's already a glut of lifestreaming services does sort of render that point moot.

So it's understandable that something as new as a social aggregator has a long way to go, Sultan continued. "They still need to enhance functionality to allow you to dial it down or filter only what's relevant," he said. "When either AI (artificial intelligence) technology, 'smart' filters, or other user-based filters are implemented, the model has a high chance of taking off."

Then there's the fact that, despite the information overload that a social feed aggregator provides, it's still feature-light. Plaxo Pulse and FriendFeed, perhaps the most "social" of the bunch, let users comment on items and add favorites; many of the others, like Socialthing, are meant to be more along the lines of a personal reference. In either case, none of them replace the need to still log in and visit all the Flickrs and Twitters and Diggs from which they collect data.

"Social-media aggregators provide a high-level view of activity taking place on social networks, but do not replace the experience of being immersed within them," commented Eric Litman, chairman of social-media agency Aux Interactive. "So much of the tone of the dialogue in social networks is set by the user experience of the networks themselves."

That's really the final word on lifestreaming services: they help out, but simply don't do enough to clean up the social-media experience. Beyond simple aggregation, it's a whole new can of worms--I can handle multiple e-mail and IM accounts through Digsby, update Twitter and Pownce and Jaiku through Twhirl, and take care of all my photo- and video-uploading needs through the Flock browser. That's enough to make any geek want an aggregator for the aggregators.

Whoever manages to mesh all this into a single "social dashboard" just might be the next hero of the Web.