FIRST AND LASTS
The week of May 15, 2016
FriendFeed

The rise and fall of FriendFeed, the social network that brought you the ‘Like’ button

By Corinne Litchfield

In the fall of 2007, a new social network named Friendfeed launched in semi-private beta. Founded by four ex-Google employees—Bret Taylor, Paul Buchheit, Jim Norris, and Sanjeev Singh—it had a simple mission: “to glue together the web,” as Buchheit put it. Using site-specific RSS feed scrapers, FriendFeed would pull data from other networks—there were 23 at launch, including Twitter, Last.fm, Flickr, and YouTube—present it in a user-friendly way, and let people build conversations around it. “We thought there was a lot of value where you could have a single place to see activity from friends,” Norris says today.

Today, that mission might seem too simple. We’re more connected than ever, and Facebook hasn’t so much glued the Web together as it has eaten the Internet. In 2007, though, Friendfeed was born into a different world. Facebook’s News Feed had launched the year before, but it was closed to other networks, adding to its “walled garden” reputation, where only registered users could view content. The same held true for Twitter, Myspace, and other popular social networks of the time: The only way you could see what your friends were doing was if you used that service, too. By offering nonusers a look inside at its public feed and allowing users to share their feed content wherever they liked, FriendFeed saw itself as putting the “social” back in “social networking.” TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington saw the potential: “FriendFeed will be a social network itself, of course,” he wrote, one that would allow more niche networks to thrive.

Users responded positively to the prospect of a new and different social network. As more people began to use Facebook, FriendFeed’s unique capabilities and privacy controls made it an alternative for anyone wanting more control over their online presence. “I could be authentic in a way I never felt I could on any other site,” recalls Stephen Mack, a FriendFeed power user. The ability to view friend-of-a-friend content and see posts bubble to the top of the main feed through new comments made it easy to meet new people.

Rooms began to spring up devoted to niche interests—a precursor to Facebook’s groups. Librarians congregated in the Library Society of the World room, seeking advice about personnel issues or ranting about attempted book bannings. Mary Carmen Nyce, former assistant dean of the library at University of the Pacific, recalls that at one point the room had nearly a thousand members. But the conversation never felt crowded. “You could get constructive feedback on how to address certain issues [at your library],” she says today.

After months of private beta testing, FriendFeed opened to the public in early 2008 to enthusiastic response. Louis Gray, an early adopter, saw the potential for a new kind of social networking. “[W]e can expect the service to grow tremendously,” he wrote, “kicking off the next wave of social networking services aimed not at posting busy profiles, but instead, aimed at collaboration, sharing and communication.” Tech and Web 2.0 journalists flocked to the site, using it as a kind of proto-Twitter to find breaking news and distribute their own stories.

“I could be authentic in a way I never felt I could on any other site.”

Later that year, FriendFeed added real-time updates, meaning that new posts would appear almost instantly—another feature we take for granted nearly a decade later. And items from the feed could be shared or embedded outside on the wider Web—a feature then not available on Facebook’s News Feed. “This is wild. It’s like the web has been turned into a chat room,” Silicon Valley tech pundit Robert Scoble wrote, heralding the arrival of what he called “the live web.”

Despite the acclaim, FriendFeed was dwarfed by Facebook. But its smaller user base meant the company could quickly launch new features, one of which has become nearly synonymous with social media: the Like button. “We created the ‘Like’ feature in FriendFeed because I realized that people wanted an easy way to let others know that they saw what their friends posted and appreciated it,” Buchheit later said. It was a massive success. (Facebook, which had been working on a similar button for over a year, didn’t launch its version until 2009.)

Real-time feed updating, though, seemed the real advance. While it’s possible to imagine social media today without some version of the Like button, it’s hard to see much appeal in a social network that doesn’t feature a real-time stream—though what we know as “the feed” may be on its way out. Way back in the spring of 2009, TechCrunch’s M.G. Siegler wrote that, with real-time updates, “FriendFeed seems to be morphing into exactly what Facebook wants to be.” Soon enough, the feature moved out of beta; posts, likes, and comments appeared on the site as they happened, driving many users to distraction. (You may recognize this feeling.) But time spent on the site grew, peaking that July.

That usage spike clearly caught Facebook’s attention: The next month, FriendFeed cofounder Bret Taylor announced the site had been purchased by its bigger, bluer competitor. (Taylor went on to become Facebook’s CTO.) The announcement post drew 145 comments, many of them accusing the founders of selling out and bemoaning the site’s assimilation by Facebook. Soon enough, TechCrunch’s Siegler, formerly a fan, would write that the site had changed: “FriendFeed was much more about information sharing and conversation. And that’s what I miss … FriendFeed was like a playground for information.”

But worries about FriendFeed’s demise were premature. In early 2011, Louis Gray, the early FriendFeed fan, wrote on Quora, “Friendfeed still has a regular user base, both domestically and internationally, with top countries including Turkey and Italy. While the total number of U.S. users on the site has decreased in the last two years, active conversations on a wide variety of topics continue.”

That may sound like a euphemistic way of saying the site was slowly dwindling to nothing, but longtime users say FriendFeed was an important part of their lives. Mary Carmen Nyce, the former librarian, met her husband on the service and had fellow FriendFeeders in their wedding party. Rochelle LaPlante, another longtime user, says, “I had my first child, my second child, I got divorced, and I remarried. This was, of course, over the span of several years but FriendFeed witnessed it all.” Mark Hooper remembers a “place that felt like a real, close family happening. And at the same time I conversed with complete strangers across the globe—people whose native languages included Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Norwegian, Italian, and so many more—because we could tell instantly what interests we shared in a way that just isn’t so clear cut anywhere else out there.”

“It’s like having a house full of your childhood memories be burned to the ground.”

Perhaps it sounded too good to last. On March 9, 2015, after six years of radio silence, a post appeared on the FriendFeed blog, declaring that “the number of people using FriendFeed has been steadily declining and the community is now just a fraction of what it once was. Given this, we’ve decided that it’s time to start winding things down.” The site would be shut down in 30 days.

Across the Internet, reactions varied from shock that the site was still in existence to initiating petitions to stop the closure; the ArchiveTeam sprang into action, hoping to save many of the profiles, comments, and posts that would likely otherwise vanish forever. Some users archived their profiles thanks to a homebrew script; others, though, decided to erase themselves entirely from the site.

FriendFeed went offline completely on April 10, 2015, its community left to find other homes. LaPlante sees that as a tragedy. “It’s where the best and worst times of my life were shared and I still feel a sense of loss now that it’s gone,” she says. “It’s like having a house full of your childhood memories be burned to the ground. You can recall that box of baby photos or your favorite childhood bunny that you had inside, but it’s all gone now.”

FriendFeed was ultimately undone by a bigger, better-resourced competitor—one that purchased the site and incorporated its ideas into the Facebook we know today. But though the broader concept of a curated real-time feed has become a familiar aspect of social media, along the way a genuine community of friends and strangers was lost.

Yet the memory of it lives on among former users. Several Facebook groups re-create private FriendFeed rooms, though they’re nowhere near as expansive as their predecessors on the original site. Former FriendFeeders rally to support each other through crises and celebrations and arrange to meet in real life, in what are known as “FFeedups.” Several devotees—mainly those based outside the U.S.—went on to use FriendFeed’s open source software to create similar sites, such as Frenf.it and FreeFeed.

Another site, Mokum, bills itself as a “small-scale social network,”a description that may appeal to people who find themselves disaffected with Facebook’s blue behemoth. There is, after all, something to be said for small and intimate virtual spaces. But they won’t be FriendFeed. Says Mack, the longtime user, “It was a therapeutic, supportive, enriching network of people—and it’s unlikely to ever exist again.”