On the Road to Following
At least since the birth of RSS, it has been possible to pull in all of the latest content from the friends, luminaries and journalists you most wanted to track online. This move made the Web much more user-centric than it had been. It was the Information Age of the Web, if you will. Instead of browsing to 100 different destinations to read the content you were interested, you went to one destination and read your content there.
The next step on the road to following was the blooming of the social networks. From Friendster to MySpace to Facebook to the penultimate Classmates.com, it was finally possible to keep up to the day to day trials and tribulations of your closest friends and family (and the guy who pants'ed you in fourth grade and has since become enlightened, or so he says).
Still, the notion of following, and the idea that the moniker @foo could uniquely identify an individual didn't really take hold until the birth of Twitter. Twitter opened up the possibility of finding out not only what your buddy John had for lunch, but what Paris Hilton and Oprah had for lunch! But it was more than that, users began tweeting their latest blog posts, their latest Flickr images, their and their latest and favorite YouTube videos. Twitter turned into a place to follow what someone was doing online. Instead of finding the RSS feeds your friends' and idols' blogs, images, videos, etc., etc., you can just follow all of their activity in one place, on Twitter.
The Rise of Aggregation
But their was a problem. A couple, really. First, Twitter is not a great place for conversations. There are exceptions, but for the most part everything is one-way on Twitter. I can post this blog entry there and my followers can see it, they may even @-reply back to me, but none of my other followers will see that comment. Second, with Twitter the onus is on me, the author, to push all of my content there. If I remember to publish my Flickr images but not my Picasa images, they my followers will miss stuff. This emphasizes the fact that on Twitter, you are not following a friend, you are following a friend's Twitter account. What doesn't exist there might not as well exist. Lastly, publishing everything I do online to Twitter makes my tweet stream very noisy. It's much better to self-curate what content you publish to Twitter so only the best stuff gets through so as not to overwhelm your followers.
These are the problems the aggregators were trying to solve. The most successful of these was FriendFeed. It allowed you to specify all the accounts you had across the Web, from not only Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, but Yelp! and Laconica and Delicious and anything that published an RSS feed of your content and it would aggregate all of that content in one place. You set it up once and all of a sudden you have a single location for people to follow what you do online. As for the three problems Twitter had in this role, 1) FriendFeed allowed conversations around each post, 2) all of my content gets pulled in automatically once I set it up, 3) my followers on FriendFeed could "hide" content from services they weren't interested, so they could see all of my blog posts and tweets but ignore reviews of my small town restaurants they'll never be in the vicinity of.
Social Web Technologies
Despite appearances, and coming extremely close, FriendFeed was not a panacea. The biggest problem is that it is a closed system. Yes, they have an API and let all of their data out. They went way further than just about anybody out there. However, if I cannot run software on a server of my choice and participate in your system, then you are a closed system. This is antithetical to the ideals of the Web and no method of following an individual on the Web can be built from these foundations.
Thankfully, this was not the end of the road. A new group of technologies is currently evolving to fill the role currently best served by FriendFeed. As mentioned in my Primer on the Social Web, FOAF and XFN provide a way for me to specify all of my accounts and build a little mini-web where those interested can follow what I do online. Webfinger allows me to name my mini-web. Sites such as Google Buzz act as a view of this web, not as silos like the old social networks. Sure, the comments are mostly owned by Buzz at the moment, but that will change when Salmon is implemented, which is the plan. With Salmon, if someone comments on a blog post of yours in Buzz, that comment will route it's way back to your blog.
Once these technologies catch hold, we will be in the next era of following, where you can actually follow a person, not a feed or a service or a series of tweets, on the Web. If I give you my email address, assuming it corresponds to a WebFinger account, like my GMail address does, everything should work automagically.
There is just one problem with all of this that I have not seen a solution for yet. There was something great, almost empowering, about the old, original method of following, where you subscribe to whatever RSS feeds you find interesting. It meant I could read all of the great writing an expert in my field published without 1,000 pictures of his cat being pushed in my face. Similarly, I could view all the pictures of my friends baby without having to comb through all the parenting-related bookmarks they saved to Delicious. With all of this great Social Web technology, how can I follow the people I want while still maintaining some control over the content I see?
That will be the subject of my next post, along with a possible solution (or, at least the steps towards one).