Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Facebook's acquisition of FriendFeed, 2 1/2 years later


Time passes.

On Monday night, I decided to look back at a business acquisition that affected a number of people whom I know. Specifically, I looked at Facebook's acquisition of FriendFeed on August 10, 2009, as it was greeted at the time. I wasn't interested in the post mortems that were blessed by hindsight - I was interested in the immediate reactions to the acquisition, once people read FriendFeed's blog post and Facebook's press release about the acquisition.

I started by relistening to the special Ffundercats podcast that was recorded on that day. If you have never heard of the Ffundercats podcast, it was an end-of-week podcast that was devoted to FriendFeed, including both the service itself and the things taking place on the service. At the time of Facebook's acquisition, the Ffundercats had recorded 41 episodes - the acquisition merited a special 42nd episode.

The episode, which is still available for download today (long after the Ffundercats podcast entered its hiatus), is raw in many respects. Unlike most Ffundercats podcasts, this particular one was unedited, and contains a lot of the things that you usually only heard in the live broadcast (for example, Josh Haley was away from home, and it took some time for the two to connect).

Another raw element of the podcast were the reactions of Haley, Johnny Worthington, and special guest Louis Gray, all of whom were taken by surprise at the acquisition (as were most of us). At the time no one knew how long FriendFeed would continue to operate, or what Facebook would do with the service, if anything.

Haley, Worthington, and initial collaborator Mark Wilson had started the podcast out of passion for the service - again, "fan" is short for "fanatic," and the Ffundercats dedicated themselves to a multi-continental weekly podcast grind. When you are fans of a particular service, and that service is sold to a big huge monolithic company, the rawness of your feelings can be understood.

The second thing that I examined was my own reaction to the acquisition. In my post on that day, I made two points - first, that despite the views of the fanatical FriendFeed users (the Ffundercats weren't the only fanatics out there), the former FriendFeed employees' paychecks were now being paid by Facebook, so Facebook was the employees' first loyalty. The second point that I made was that FriendFeed, unlike Twitter, was pretty much unknown to the general public - so much so that more attention was paid to Facebook acquiring Google alumni than was paid to the actual company that was acquired. So in a way we shouldn't have been surprised at the sudden change to FriendFeed's status.

The third thing that I viewed was Louis Gray's post on the acquisition. Gray noted that he almost stumbled upon the story a week before it happened:

You could see in the way they collectively had a heart attack when I walked into their offices last week unannounced and caught them in what was called "a company meeting" - which practically needed bouncers out the door for how quickly I left.

Gray used some word pictures to paint an initial view of the acquisition:

Here's the thing. FriendFeed is the good girl. FriendFeed is the one that has a 4.0 GPA and had big dreams of an Ivy League diploma. And yet, she ends up with you - the Silicon Valley equivalent of your local state school. When you come rolling in with your heavy car, big wheels and pumping bass, we don't care how much money you say you're worth - we still don't trust your grin when you open the door and say "hop in".

The common thread through all of these is the idea of betrayal - the shining service on a hill gets eaten up by the big company that doesn't care.

At that time, I don't think any of us could predict what was going to happen, or where we would all be 2 1/2 years later. We didn't know that FriendFeed would still be running, in a way, 2 1/2 years later. Nor did we know that Bret Taylor would be Facebook's Chief Technology Officer at the time that Facebook's IPO was announced, or that Paul Buchheit would exit to Y Combinator.

To my mind, the most interesting, and illustrative, story is the story of what happened to Louis Gray. A few months before Facebook's acquisition of FriendFeed, Gray had left his then-employer and joined Paladin Advisors Group. Roughly two years later, he left Paladin and joined a large company as a product marketing manager for the company's social media service.

The company wasn't Facebook. Instead, it was Google, which had just launched its latest iteration at a social media service, Google+.

Many people have compared Google+ with FriendFeed, including Mario Sundar, Dare Obasanjo, and others, possibly including yourself.

It's interesting to compare Google+ with FriendFeed. FriendFeed has spent most of the last 2 1/2 years frozen in time, with few new features, as the rest of the social media landscape has caught up with it and surpassed it. For example, FriendFeed doesn't have games, something that Google+ (and Facebook) have, and something that could have brought FriendFeed some revenue, had they ever implemented it.

But rather than ticking off a list of features, the biggest "feature" of Google+ is its integration with other Google services - something that FriendFeed, as a stand-alone entity, really could never match. Sure, FriendFeed can aggregate - something that Google+ still can't do, and Facebook only does in a limited sense - but FriendFeed can't INCORPORATE - for example, in the seamless way that a Google search can yield information about what your friends think about the topic, or in the seamless way in which you can use a Google search to ask your friends about a topic.

So what happened to the idea of FriendFeed? Many people make a big deal about the community, but the community is everywhere - something that I notice every time I read a particular item in Facebook, then go to Google+ and see that the person has posted the exact same item there. And of course there are the features, but Facebook got FriendFeed's comments and likes even before they acquired the company itself, and I've talked enough about lircles to indicate that FriendFeed's groups (not unique to FriendFeed) can now be found in many places.

FriendFeed, which was known about by relatively few people even in its heyday, is now remembered by even fewer people. But its technical successes and its business failures (even its ending success of a sale to Facebook was admittedly for the people, not the service) are certainly remembered by a few people, and have been instructive for those people as they - we - move on to other things in the future.
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