How Facebook integrates FriendFeed – Discovery vs. Privacy

This week, FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit popped up on FriendFeed to let folk know that developers are quietly at work on a couple of longer-term projects that will help bring FriendFeedy goodness to the larger world. There has been a lot of discussion about the dropoff in FriendFeed traffic since the Facebook acquisition, and the appearance was intended to reassure the community. People weren’t reassured, not only because Buchheit didn’t share any details about what they’re actually working on, but because there is a fundamental questions about how that integration would work, because of a fundamental difference in the social model of the services.

Facebook is designed to to share things only with one’s friends, and FriendFeed is designed to make things discoverable through the social network. These social models look superficially similar – a user shares content through a friend list, but are deeply different.

Facebook’s default today is private/symmetric. You need to be mutual friends to see each others content, and if you are not friends with someone, you have access to very limited information. There is a “fan page” model but it is oriented toward “publishing/celebrity” rather than information sharing. By contract, FriendFeed has a public/asymmetric model like Twitter. Information is public by default, you can easily discover someone’s content without any “friend” gesture whatsoever, and you can follow someone’s stream without a mutual friend commitment. Information and conversation is discoverable. FriendFeed has strong searching and filtering capabilities that let you find things and people you’re interested in.

These two social models reflect very different values. With Facebook, the value is to share things in confidence with one’s friends, and to conversations in confidence. The deviations in the model that result from diverse friend networks, from disclosure through 3rd party applications, and other sorts of “information leakage” are seen as problems, “privacy violations” that need to be controlled through configuration, through restricting information, through policies that restrict information sharing.

With FriendFeed, the value is to share things publicly. On FriendFeed, the value is to make things discoverable and sharable, in one’s social network and with others who may find it, and to have conversations that attract interested people. Communities that gravitated to FriendFeed included scientists, journalists, and educators – communities that explicitly valued the discoverability.

In the discussion on FriendFeed, the community was not mollified, because they fundamentally value the discoverable model of FriendFeed. For FriendFeed users, simply adding FriendFeed-style service integration into the symmetric/private Facebook model, it will be much less useful. A user will able to more easily share updates from Delicious or Youtube or to their friend network, but be unable to discover new people and information.

This difference is often put with a value judgement shortcut, Facebook is closed=bad. This judgement is too simple – the problem is that as Facebook gains more and more power to share information, and the defaults remain private, then actions like discussing news stories won’t be in the public domain, even if people would prefer them to be. But if the initial use case for many users is privacy, then changing defaults to increase sharing will have negative consequences.

For the community in the FriendFeed discussion – disclosure, myself included – the integration will have value if it brings more of the FriendFeed public/asymmetric discoverable model to Facebook, and will not have value if it doesn’t. Simply promising to bring FriendFeed features into Facebook is worthless without making that information discoverable.

How to create a social network that enables privacy but promotes and rewards discovery? That is a challenge. and the way that Facebook integrates FriendFeed will show whether Facebook is interested in discovery and so, are they up to the challenge.

Update: Questions about Facebook’s direction were short-lived. Later yesterday, Facebook announced that public updates would be searchable on Bing. Clearly Facebook is headed for more discoverability. The question is now how this will play out in terms of Facebook user expectations and user experience.

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