May 29th, 2008
Strands: Friendlier than FriendFeed (or everyone’s lifestream just got more valuable)
Corvallis-based Strands, the company that is working to apply its recommender technology to help folks find more stuff to like, has been going through a bit of a metamorphosis as of late. And while they’re not quite ready to emerge from the chrysalis, they are starting to show some hints of where they’re going.
One such hint was released in private BETA yesterday: the new Strands.
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit in on a group demo that the Strands folks provided on Wednesday evening. Nathan Bell, Adam DuVander, Troy H., Aaron Hockley, Don Park, Bram Pitoyo, Josh Pyles, and Olga Pyles (among others) were all in attendance, as well. So you may see posts from them, too.
So what is this new Strands thingamajig? Long story short, Strands is now offering a social lifestreaming service. But with a twist.
I realize that many of you out there may have a big “WTF is lifestreaming?” bubble floating over your head right now. So rather than continue to geekily blather on about it, I thought I would take the opportunity to step back and define “lifestreaming.”
Then, we’ll all be on the same proverbial page.
Lifestreaming consists of aggregating all your disparate online activities into one single feed of information.
So, for example, you post photos on flickr, you update your Facebook profile, you send a few tweets to Twitter, you favorite a video on YouTube, you add some bookmarks to ma.gnolia, and you post a message to your blog.
All of these are data points relating to you but they’re all beholden to those respective services.
Using a lifestream, you collect these data points in one spot—aggregating all of these activities into a chronological stream—and in so doing, you provide contextual reference for those seemingly disparate activities.
Think “one stop” for all of your activities on the Web.
Still not clicking? ReadWriteWeb posted a great write-up on lifestreaming services in January 2008 which may be of interest.
Okay. So that’s lifestreaming. Why do it?
Good question. Because, to date, lifestreaming has been yet another flavor of navel gazing. Another channel of noise to monitor. Especially if you tend to follow people on individual services and then follow their respective lifestreams.
You’re getting everything in stereo stereo.
The real value—apart from one-point access to a variety of datastreams—has been difficult to define. Yes, we can do it, but should we do it?
Well, now, that answer may very well be “Yes.” You see, with Strands, there’s now actually a reason to do it. And there’s value in doing it.
But before we can get on to the cool Strands stuff, there’s a huge elephant in this room into which I keep bumping. So let’s resolve that, shall we?
Isn’t this just another flavor of FriendFeed?
In the tech industry, we’re constantly searching for analogies to describe new services. And it’s a struggle. So when someone comes along and introduces a concept, they gain more than first-mover advantage: they become the analogy.
So, yes, the comparisons to FriendFeed are immediate, obvious, and deserved. But that comparison shouldn’t serve as a means of dismissing the Strands service.
Why? Well, two primary reasons.
First of all, a little over six months ago, none of us even knew what FriendFeed was. Granted, a great deal has changed since that point in time, with FriendFeed quickly moving into “media darling” status. But fact of the matter is that, before that point, tumblr could have easily been deemed the leading lifestreaming service. But FriendFeed raised the bar.
Now, Strands has raised that lifestreaming bar higher.
And I believe they’ve raised it in a way that actually moves sharing and comparing lifestreams from the realm of fleeting interest and curiosity to the realm of actually being helpful and valuable to those who choose to participate.
Second reason we shouldn’t simply dismiss Strands as an also ran? Well, it’s an opportunity for me to use one of my favorite platitudes: Google wasn’t the first search engine.
Or, in other words, just because you’re first and popular doesn’t mean you automatically win—or that you’ve solved the problem. (Or maybe it does. If you can find anyone from Alta Vista to attest to winning that search engine race, I’m all ears.)
So yes, Strands has some similarities to FriendFeed. And it stands up quite well, toe-to-toe, on those similarities.
But where it shines, of course, is in the areas that Strands differs from FriendFeed.
What makes Strands different?
What makes Strands different is not necessarily the tangible features there today.
Don’t get me wrong. There are a number of cool features, even in this early version of the service: a desktop client, filtering, interesting graphs of activity, and some smooth AJAXy transitions. From an aesthetic standpoint, Strands is prettier than FriendFeed. There’s more eye candy. There’s this little thing over here. And that little thing over there.
I could go on and on, but the Strands team has posted detailed feature list for the service on their blog. So, I’ll let them describe what’s there, currently.
Or we could complain about what’s not there. Where’s the RSS? Where’s the API? Why can’t I login with OpenID?
There are a lot of things still on the road map. But it’s a private BETA, so that’s to be expected.
All that I’m saying is that I don’t think focusing on a feature-by-feature write-up is the best place to spend our time. (Especially after forcing you to read through that overbearing intro.)
So where should we focus? Well, I’m most impressed with the concept—which holds a great deal of potential—and the vision for where this could possibly go. Because I actually get it.
I have to admit, I never quite got FriendFeed. I’m sure it’s there to get. But I just never quite grokked it. I couldn’t get over the hump. Despite my minimal efforts to do so.
With Strands, I get it.
So I’m going to focus less on “what it does” and more on “why I’m definitely going to use it.”
I’m going to use it because it gives my lifestream value—and it gives me more valuable resources through participation. By applying its recommender technology to your lifestream and the lifestreams of the folks you’re following, Strands will start delivering recommendations to you.
I do something and I get rewarded for sharing that data. I get other stuff that I might find cool—stuff I may have never found otherwise.
And that, to me, is valuable. Exceedingly valuable. Because I like new stuff. And I especially like cool new stuff.
So now, instead of just getting a chronological aggregation of data, you and I will get the opportunity to start making sense of all that noise. As more and more data is added to the various lifestreams of the folks you’re following, you’ll start to see trends, popular items, and recommendations of things that you might like.
The service aims to take the social media aggregation FriendFeed offers to the next level by offering social recommendations on top of it. The company aims to use your friends as a filter to “hot” content you’ll be interested in.
Or to put it another way, the stuff that may be important to you bubbles to the top. Where you can see it. And act on it. And this stuff may even be stuff that you didn’t realize was important. It may be something entirely new.
So what’s the catch?
The catch is the classic catch: none of this works without a sheer girth of users and data.
A recommendation engine needs data fuel on which to run, otherwise it can’t make any recommendations.
But that seems like an easy problem to solve.
So let’s start solving it.
Interested in trying out Strands? Well, head on over to the signup page and use the promo code “portland.” That will get you an account on Strands (well, the first 100 or so of you, anyway).
[Update: Seems as if there has been some confusion about where to use the promo code. To clarify...]
Then, add some folks.
And that will help solve this problem of “getting people to use the service.” And then we’ll get to see how this recommendation stuff really works. And how well the algorithm functions. And if we’re really finding cool new stuff or not.
Again, it’s private BETA, so it’s not for the faint of heart. But I’d love to see you over there. And I’d love to get your take on the new service.
I think it has the potential to change the way we influence one and another.
And that’s pretty exciting.