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Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

'Activity Streams' Will Be the Glue of Your Online Life

A developing standard for exchanging social information is being tested by Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.

  • July 1, 2010

Someday soon you may see a cryptic new icon on some of your favorite sites. It represents a new standard–a microformat to be exact–that describes one thing: what you’re doing to whom on the social web. Subject, verb, object.

The standard, known as Activity Streams, aims to solve the problem that FriendFeed–acquired by Facebook a year ago, but largely stagnant since then–was supposed to fix: bringing together what your friends are doing from all over the web. They may be posting pictures to Flickr and Picassa, microblogging at Twitter, liking things of Facebook, recommending articles at their favorite news sites, etc. It’s a firehose of information that you should be able to filter intelligently–and, more importantly, add to as easily as you add a new RSS feed to your reader or a new mailing list to your email inbox.

But that will require an open standard on which all parties agree. Hence, Activity Streams, which are already being tested (even though the standard has yet to be finalized at a 1.0 level) by Facebook, MySpace, Windows Live, Google Buzz, BBC, Opera, TypePad, Cliqset, Gowalla, Hulu, TypePad and others.

Much of the activity described by Activity Streams can already be encompassed in a standard RSS feed, but not all of it. One thing RSS is bad at, according to the microformats wiki entry on Activity Streams, is verbs–there’s no specific field into which a service provider can dump an action.

In Activity Streams, verbs are their own objects, and the variety of actions that can be represented is limited only by the standard itself. Providers can also use verbs outside the standard, taking the chance that they’ll eventually be incorporated, or that a downstream client could parse them anyway. Here’s a list of the verbs incorporated in the Activity Streams standard so far:

To date, the most impressive implementation of Activity Streams comes from the the social network / social network aggregator Cliqset, which is sort of a more-evolved version of FriendFeed. That site’s implementation allows users to “pull in content from almost 70 social networks and services”–including photos, status updates, videos, blog posts etc.

A peek at the Activity Streams to-do reveals some interesting functionality on the horizon, including gaming-related verbs and objects and the ability to represent ratings.

The benefits of Activity Streams, according to project lead Chris Messina, will include “Staying in touch across the web; an open, emergent ecosystem; filtering, search, automation and stats” and the ability to “coalesce and merge” content from friends.

In other words, you’ll never have to re-read your buddy’s syndicated Tweets in both your Twitter client and on Facebook again. More importantly, it’s possible that, with the aid of intelligent filtering, you’ll be able to get as much–or as little–information about your friends and family as you like.

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