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Consolidating Your Web Banter

New services link up conversations and messages from across the Web.
April 9, 2008

Many Web users drop digital breadcrumbs all over the Web: a comment left on YouTube, a status update posted on Facebook, a mundane task noted on the microblogging service Twitter, a long-form update posted on a blog. But merging these services has long been a hassle, both in terms of publishing posts to all the services you use and consolidating the stream of updates you receive from your friends.

Now, some companies are building technology that helps connect these disparate conversations. Last week, Seesmic–a forthcoming video-conversation service–bought Twhirl, a startup that makes downloadable software that plugs directly into Twitter, a social-networking site where people can post updates about their activities in 140 characters or less.

Using Twhirl, a person can post to three services at once–Twitter, plus the similar services Pownce and Jaiku–and likewise get updates from friends using any one of these services, regardless of whether or not the friend uses Twhirl. Loic Le Meur, founder of Seesmic, says Twhirl will soon provide access to Seesmic and other services.

“When blogging and social software started,” Le Meur says, “everyone kept their centralized information somewhere, like on their blog. Now we’re coming into a situation that is totally opposite.” He says when he goes online, he checks 10 different services, such as e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and his blog. “It’s a nightmare,” he says. Because of the incompatibility of services, communicating with friends requires him to hop from one service to the next. “What matters isn’t the services,” he says, it’s your friends.

Currently, people need to know which of their friends use which services if they want to post a message for all of them to see. For instance, if you post a note using Twitter’s website, you would need to repost the same note on Pownce in order for those who subscribe to your Pownce updates to automatically receive it. Even though the services provide comparable functions, the communities of users are kept separate. But as Twhirl and others continue to gather information from disparate services, online discussions could become less constrained. In other words, people could drastically minimize the maintenance that they put into their Web conversations.

Seesmic and Twhirl aren’t alone in their attempt to consolidate people’s online personal lives. A new company called FriendFeed, developed by former Google employees, also merges people’s digital trails. The Web-based service automatically collects all the data you leave on the Web, from comments on YouTube videos or Flickr photos to blog posts and Twitters. So your friends can subscribe to your personal feed, instead of the myriad services you subscribe to.

“The past five years or so have seen a massive proliferation of user-generated content,” says Bret Taylor, founder and CEO of FriendFeed. Tools that aggregate this information have been around for years, but so far they haven’t been very good at filtering useful content from less-useful content. “Our theory is that people you know are the best filters for information,” he says.

As Le Meur sees it, one of the keys to consolidating personal online communications is a programming standard called XMPP, an open platform that lets anyone develop instant-communication software. Google Talk, for instance, runs on XMPP, which allows it to be accessed in a number of different ways: in a Web browser, as downloadable software, and even via third-party chat-service aggregating software such as Adium.

Seesmic will support XMPP standard, which will enable Twhirl to distribute videos for the service at the speed of instant messaging. The simplicity and speed of Twhirl’s interface, Le Meur says, will make it fairly straightforward for users to post video, a task that most people currently see as too complex.

As with most new Web services and software, Seesmic’s immediate business goal with Twhirl is not to make money, but rather to make Seesmic’s distribution smoother. Le Meur says he just wants to sign up as many users as possible, then figure out how to make money on it.

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