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Facebook Acquires Friendfeed in Play for Relevance

Friendfeed was once called the "coolest service no one will ever use" by TechCrunch, but now that Facebook has acquired the 12-person company for an undisclosed sum, that maxim won't stay true much longer.

Friendfeed's trajectory was almost pre-destined, if you follow the news-trail backwards: last summer, Facebook revamped their entire site to emphasize News Feed and status updates, and plenty of people noticed that the "New" Facebook looked a hell of a lot like Friendfeed. (Below, Friendfeed's big selling point: unity.)

Friendfeed unity

According to Google Trends, New Facebook decimated Web discussion of Friendfeed; since Facebook acted as its own news feed, few people needed a service that culled Facebook's updates into an RSS-like format. Friendfeed responded in kind by becoming more like Twitter and integrating tweets, Facebook, and Gchat functionality into one big fat social roll, all presented by default in real-time. That was just around the time that Facebook backlash reached its peak, and at the same time, Twitter began its meteoric rise. The landscape Facebook had dominated so quickly was changing.

Mark ZuckerbergIn Facebook's press release announcing the acquisition, there's a Mark Zuckerberg quote in which he yammers on about Friendfeed's "simplicity" and "elegance." He cites those qualities as reasons for the acquisition, but simple admiration is rarely behind any multi-million dollar move. No, what Friendfeed has is universality: it acknowledges that some people are on Facebook, yes, but plenty of other are on Twitter and Gmail, and all those people want to talk to each other using one simple interface. Facebook, for all its 250 million users, is powerless to stem the tide of people who are moving towards unification apps to do their social networking, and it is desperate to do something about it.

The biggest danger to Facebook is, oddly, irrelevance. Once you get your info up there, there's not much incentive to return on a daily basis. Many of the people you want to Facebook-stalk now have Twitter feeds that are lighter, more personal and more portable with all the numerous apps out there, desktop and mobile alike. Contacting people you already know is much easier with email than over Facebook's Web UI, so Facebook messages very quickly jump from Facebook's site to private email accounts. In short, there are fewer and fewer reasons to come back to Facebook except to look people up; it's becoming the phone book of our age.

Acquiring Friendfeed is a way to show users that they can still use Facebook as their home base and not miss the action in other social networks. But if Facebook folds Friendfeed into its mother-site, it'll undo all that "simplicity and elegance" that users love about (both Friendfeed and) Twitter. To say that this is Facebook's strike-back against Twitter would be reductive; it's not an offensive move. It's just an old social networking dog trying to learn a new trick.