As we reported earlier today, social aggregation service FriendFeed has had a major overhaul. The new FriendFeed, currently available at beta.friendfeed.com (it will eventually become the main service after testing) takes FriendFeed deep into Facebook and Twitter territory, with "real-time" streaming and direct messaging.
The new look has been delivered with mixed reviews. Some (like our Steve Hodson) hate the "real-time" updates. Others note that visually it looks more like a Twitter or Facebook stream. The rounded edges, with some claim are an upgrade, are what engineers apply to a site when they want it to look trendy, but they don't want to hire someone who understands visual design.
There are some colorful descriptions in what has been delivered. "Real-time" updates are really an auto-refreshing feature. Yes, the net result is that for communication internal to FriendFeed, it is real time. But it's only real time in that regard; FriendFeed relies on drawing data from external services (it is after all, suppose to be a social aggregator.) Those services, be it with FriendFeed to blame or the external service, can be very slow in entering the FriendFeed stream. Sometimes it can take hours for content from this site to appear on FriendFeed, and for a while I took to manually adding it (FriendFeed have this feature because they know the delays); FeedBurner may take some of the blame, but when I've seen a post in Google Reader for a good 20-30 minutes prior, you have to wonder a little bit.
The problem I have is that FriendFeed now appears to be the master of none. What was clearly a social aggregator and base level social network is now trying hard to be like Facebook and Twitter combined (and as someone suggested on FriendFeed, IRC as well.) To note this though is to not dislike it, but instead appreciate the why.
FriendFeed is taking the last throw of the dice to greatness.
FriendFeed hasn't been dying, despite outbreaks of people suggesting that it has been. But likewise it hasn't been spectacularly growing either. The growth has been steady, but at a time services that compete for attention (specifically Facebook and Twitter) have gone through the roof.
Hard core FriendFeed users may dispute this, but FriendFeed has also suffered from a drop off in user activity (perhaps replaced more by new users given the traffic stats), particularly since Facebook's latest redesign. I spend more time interacting with some friends who I first got to know on FriendFeed on Facebook now than I do on FriendFeed itself; others have noted publicly and privately that they've noticed the same.
FriendFeed doesn't have a bottomless pit of money, and while the growth has been reasonable, volume is the path to greatness if they want to raise another round, or be acquired (they still don't have a revenue model, but that's a topic for another day.)
Moving the site more towards Facebook, with a Twitter like approach and speed has without doubt lowered the barrier of entry to new users. It's simpler, quicker, and even prettier now, all qualities that if they play right, will drive a fresh wave of new members, and increase retention rates and word of mouth.
It is a risk: making your service more familiar dilutes its uniqueness, but it's exactly what FriendFeed is trying here. I sincerely wish them well.