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Over the years, I have used a number of tools and websites for communication, collaboration, sharing information, social networking etc. However, at ISMB 2008 this year, using Friend Feed I am struck what may seem to be an obvious observation: Friend Feed (FF) is a VERY effective way to share information with friends and colleagues.  (Note: if you are not familiar with Friend Feed, Cameron Neylon has an excellent introductory overview of the site with great screen shots in the blog Science in the Open)

What perhaps I didn’t realize (and what has tremendous implications for science) is that in fact, it is a brilliant way to build a collaborative knowledgebase. In most of the sessions at ISMB, there have been 2-3 people simultaneously microblogging about a talk – as it happens! This allows an automatic aggregation of different viewpoints and perspectives on the material. It also fills in gaps – notes that were missed, references or urls. A single query is usually answered within a few seconds with the missing material. At the end, you have a virtual e-record – very handy at meetings for reviewing or if you have missed the talk. 

Obviously, the key issue is that you trust the providers and therefore there content. Also the level of detail can vary and unless you are actively contributing to to a feed, you most likely will still need your own notes.  But the mechanistic potential, as well as the community building should make us sit up and take note. And there seem to be some obvious places where sites like Friend Feed could make an immediate impact. For example, as Chris Heuer points out, FF rooms can easily replace mailing lists.

We get to have it [Friend Feed content] on the Web instead of locked in our email inbox. Chris Heuer

The design of the aggregation stream allows us to build and just as importantly maintain relationships with our friends and colleagues. This is what Facebook set out to do. However, if you look at the new design of Facebook, it appears they have raised the white flag and surrendered to Friend Feed’s concept. With the new design, there is now just a single content stream, with the ability to include outside information such as Twitter. Applications have taken a back seat and are now on their own tab – a click away before they are visible. Given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in light of the striking redesign by Facebook, I wonder if FF is blushing? 

Note: If you are at ISMB and interested in discussing this further, there will be a Birds of a Feather (BoF) session on Tuesday, July 22nd . And yes, if you miss the session, there will be plenty of coverage on FF in the ISMB room for you to read to catch up!

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