"Cathy Brooks is a typically unapologetic Silicon Valley Web addict," writes Brad Stone in the New York Times. "Last week alone, she produced more than 40 pithy updates on the text messaging service Twitter, uploaded two dozen videos to various video sharing sites, posted seven photographs on the Yahoo image service Flickr and one item to the online community calendar Upcoming." Usually, when one identifies a friend as an addict, an intervention is in order. But Stone, who seems to have spent so much time in San Francisco's tech circles that he's gone native, suggests more technology instead: Specifically, FriendFeed, which gathers all of this online activity in one place, making it marginally easier for Brooks's benighted friends to keep up with her online logorrhea.
Brooks is employed by Seesmic, a videomail startup, so some of the "two dozen videos" she made could arguably be seen as all in a day's work. But the rest? The mainstream readers of the Times must wonder what people like Brooks do all day. One supposes they could sign up on FriendFeed to find out, but they, unlike the people of the Valley, have real jobs. Brooks, for her part, makes no apologies for her online chattiness: Her website sums up her career from a first-grade report card: "Cathy likes to participate in any project, so long as she gets to talk." In that, she has found a community of like minds.
"The question from our standpoint is, how you find signal in the noise?" asks Peter Fenton, a VC backer of FriendFeed at Benchmark Capital. That assumes that there is any signal. Such is the complaint of Michael Arrington, who bemoans his 954 unread Facebook messages, and demands that Facebook make changes to accommodate him. Has it ever occurred to Arrington that he is, in the argot of product managers, an "edge case"? Entrepreneurs desperate for coverage, and aware that he never reads email, are trying a new way to reach him — and Arrington, in his compulsive neophilia, actually tries out the new medium, for a while. He then quickly tires of it, and throws a tantrum. Catering to such a person's whims is no way to run a company.
Is information overload really anything more than a self-inflicted disease of the Valley? I doubt it. But to the extent it is, Facebook is far better poised to solve the problem than a startup like FriendFeed. The Times mistakenly reports that Facebook is playing catch-up in gathering up its users' online activities from across the Web. Balderdash. It's just done a lousy job of marketing its ability to do so.
The technology behind Beacon — the Facebook feature which ruined Christmas for some Facebook users, by revealing their online purchases, and has gotten Facebook sued for allegedly violating a Blockbuster video-renter's privacy — is now being used to report posts to Twitter, Digg, Yelp, and Flickr. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg botched Beacon by presenting it as an advertising technology last fall. His recent spin that it was a technology meant for programmers, not Madison Avenue types, hasn't taken hold. It's likely Facebook will have to drop the Beacon name altogether before it successfully revives the technology.
But Facebook's News Feed is the most logical place to gather together the sum of its users' online activity. The users, after all, are already there. FriendFeed might make a logical acquisition for the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo, or most likely of all, Google (its founders are all ex-Googlers). But a radical paradigm for the future of communication? Sorry, Zuckerberg got there first.
(Photo by Brian Solis)