12 August 2009

The logic of the Mall

Robin Good announced today on Twitter the "Real possibility that FriendFeed.com will be shut down for good - Streamy replacing it?" Now I have never been a fan of feeds nor feed aggregators. They always struck me as a kind of extended TV Guide - lots of choice, but little useful information. I am happy to admit, however, that this is a personal foible, and should not be considered, in particular by me, as a fundamental flaw of feeds, feed use or aggregation. However, it is clear that feeds in general have been falling in popularity for some time now, and that new forms of access, sharing and use are arising.

I remember some years ago that there was a flurry of excitement over RSS and ATOM and the possibilities that it offered. I do think that a good history of the direct influence of RSS and ATOM on the rise of social computing has yet to be written, not least in changing the way that information is now accessed on the web (via Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Ning, Bebo, not to mention the rise of blogs). I too was briefly captivated by the possibilities of feeds. I remember a few on-line conversations with Robin Good over the possibilities, all of which were very enlightening as all discussions with Robin are. I quickly realized, though, that what I was working with was a web version of an inventory, and with all of its limitations.

An inventory is useful if you are regularly accessing the same items over and over again, but it is not very useful if you are constantly looking around at different items or your useful items list is constantly changing. What you get with an inventory is a constantly growing list. Like the Library, you get more and more items, but the inventory, so necessary for management, doesn't help much with access. Christine Borgman has made this point many times over the years, as have I on this blog. Inventories are useful for managing resources, but people find things through different means. For books this has always meant finding what you need through bibliographies, indexes, word of mouth, etc., and then going to the inventory to find out where the book actually is kept.

But the limitations of feeds on their own was realized fairly quickly and we saw the rise of aggregators. There was a realization that if it was too difficult to run around the web, from feed to feed, searching for what you were interested in, what you wanted to access, and what you had accessed before, was just too complicated. What was needed was a place where all of your feed needs would be waiting for you. The problem is that aggregators always reminded me of the early Sears Roebuck Catalogue. When, in the United States, the consumers were all too dispersed and distant to come to the store, Sears Roebuck brought the aggregation of the department store to them. Of course there were others who had the idea earlier. Hammacher Schlemmer was sending out its catalogue a good 45 years before Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward had a mail order catalogue 21 years earlier. However, the "Consumer's Bible," as it was often known as, offered everything one needed together in one place. You could get everything you needed from underwear to cars, from kitchen utensils to the house itself.

Like aggregators, catalogues too dominated the consumer's life for some time, but as the society has changed from literate to oral, so consumerism has changed. The catalogue has slowly been replaced over the past 30 years by the Mall. Another aggregate space, but one that is much more social (at least in the US). It is a place not just to shop, but to eat, socialize and share.

Robin Good suggested, today on Twitter, that Streamy was the next big thing after mere aggregators. Perhaps. I have looked at Streamy and it is very impressive, but my feeling is that it is only really impressive if you like malls. Streamy moves beyond the aggregator enabling the accumulation, sharing, commenting and discussion about consumables. I don't always want to be suggesting that the web is mostly a recapitulation of 20th century consumerist culture, but it does seem that the fall of FriendFeed.com, and the rise of Streamy, is not a step forward, but just another recapitulation disguised as an innovation.