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Geek by profession, thinker/writer/artist by passion. Part-time blogger,social media enthusiast and a tramp by nature :) A Man Of Mud


Monday, April 12, 2010

Social Aggregation Without Unified Social Stream ?

Which is the best Social Aggregator ? There is a lively discussion going on a LinkedIn group over this question in which I have participated but think my thoughts on the topic required a more open and more personal space - this blog. This post in a threaded conversation involving a lot of participants would only disrupt the flow.

So what is a Social Aggregator ?

Wikipedia defines it as "is the process of collecting content from multiple social network services, such as MySpace or Facebook. The task is often performed by a social network aggregator, which pulls together information into a single location,[1]  or helps a user consolidate multiple social networking profiles into one profile."

However, not everyone is willing to accept the definition and to a large extent they are justified in disregarding it. After all, Social Web is a rapidly changing scenery, can a definition phrased two year back have the same relevance in Real-time Web ? Coming back to the original discussion, I found a lot of people describe HootSuite and TweetDeck as Social Aggregators. Initially,it was a little confusing,why would tools that merely help users connect to social networking services be considered aggregators? Fundamentally, they are not very different from the traditional Client/Server architecture that almost all database software are based  on!

But later on it began to make sense, social technology is a different ball game, drawing analogy with the traditional software development methodology may not be correct. Taxonomically, a software is termed "social" based on its usage rather than its underlying architecture [source]. After all, tools like HootSuite,TweetDeck and others do let you manage multiple social networks from one place. But then,even your iGoogle startup page can be described as an aggregator and a better one, in a manner, since it not only offers gadgets to integrate its other services like GMail, Google News etc, it also allows developers to quickly create and distribute gadgets connecting to almost every site which supports XML.

But there still remains a difference between these tools and the actual concept of  Social Aggregator. An iGoogle gadget is simply a container, encapsulating information stored elsewhere. For instance, in the screen shot above, gadget displaying Facebook streams is completely independent of the Twitter stream. The same applies to all other gadgets, they are mini-applications that expose a considerably less but key data or features from larger applications. The Twitter gadget for instance, simply fetches XML file representing my timeline and displays it after formatting...

As the above diagram demonstrates, tools can pull data from multiple services and display them at one place, but the streams themselves remain independent of each other. A Social Aggregator, on the other hand can take streams from multiple sources and generate a unified social stream also referred to as lifestream (I tend to differentiate between social stream and lifestream but Wikipedia describes FriendFeed as a Lifestreaming service). Additionally, other typical Aggregator features including the basic features of all social networking sites, including features to update status, connect to other users and groups, follow what your friends are doing on various social websites. At the same time, your friends can view all your social web activities (blogging, tweeting,bookmarking,commenting and networking with other people) at one place i.e. your Aggregator profile.

(Note: The services listed above are my own preferences)
As the infographic shows, a Social Aggregator can pull data streams from other social sites (blogs,microblogs,miniblogs,image,video and audio sharing, social networking sites, social bookmarking sites and comments posted on other sites) and integrate them with its own feed  which can again be displayed on other sites. But why do we need to aggregate content from all these services when it can be done using a single service ?  For instance, LinkedIn allows you to share links, why bother to save bookmarks on Delicious and then link it to an aggregator ?

Well,here is a very personal perspective :
The idea behind posting URLs to LinkedIn is to share it with your connections and increase the visibility of the web page in real-time web. It may be possible to retrieve the URL later on (I have never tried!) but there is no denying the fact that LinkedIn is not a bookmarking service. However Delicious is (it is a folksnomy actually ), not only can I easily retrieve bookmarks I have saved before, I also can tag the bookmarks, adding meta-data of sorts to a URL. That is not all, Delicious is a collaborative platform, it integrates the fundamental feature of social networking sites. I can add other users to my network and share my bookmarks with them. Similarly, Facebook may allow you to add photos but its features do not come close to that of Flickr or Picasa's. Hence,in the current scenario it makes a lot of sense in using niche-related services and pulling them to a centralized location. This is where Social Aggregators come in and from what it seems, they are going to be very important in the near future.

As you would have guessed by now, FriendFeed is my personal favorite when it comes to Social Aggregators for the simple reason that it is the most popular one.I have also been trying to use Google Buzz as an aggregator but it is mainly directed at letting my Gmail contacts (a sizable chunk of them are not comfortable with other social sites) follow my updates on social web as a whole. However, it really could emerge a big winner and a true lifestreaming service if it is able to integrate other Google products like Calendar etc (more on that in another post). So FriendFeed remains my favorite aggregator but it already seems to have stopped evolving after Facebook acquired it. As most of you must have noticed Facebook is steadily introducing FriendFeed-like features to its own platform. With the phenomenal growth Facebook already has seen, successful implementation of most aggregation features could well make it the most dominant player.           

Note:  I composed this post in the beginning of March but had been lying in my drafts since but I guess nothing much has changed in two weeks that requires a complete rewrite....or has there been ? Kindly leave your feedback :)