Two new-but-different ways to aggregate your online life — social networks, email, photos, blogs — make it easier than ever to obsess over your relationship with your computer. One is a web browser called Flock. The other is a web service called Fuser. Does using one, the other (or both) make you a loser? Or, more accurately… a Fluser?
That depends on which one you’re using.
Flock is a new web browser (for Mac, Windows and Linux) that calls itself the “social” web browser. The sobriquet refers to the browser’s ability to integrate a litany of web services with its interface, including Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube, Google Blogger and WordPress (as well as a bunch more).
The “social” web browser
Depending on how you configure the interface, you never have to be out of eyeshot of your favorite sites and networks; Facebook, for example, can live in a sidebar next to your web browsing, ready for your spontaneous attention. What kind of attention, you ask? Well, you can actually drag and drop things to your “friends” (like pictures and links) from your web browsing (or from other things like Flickr photostreams, which can also live in a sidebar to your browsing window) the way you would on Mac OS X.
Flock in action
Here’s what this is meant to accomplish: It’s an attempt to streamline the web browsing you normally do by reducing the number of sites you actually have to navigate to. It’s what I’ll call the “strip mall” approach to web browsing: put everything you normally need in one convenient location, so that you don’t have to reach far for variety. If the strip mall analogy makes you bristle, it should; strip malls are also a pain to navigate, and they end up sucking up more of your time (because there’s more to see) than they save in their consolidation of stores.
The same problem afflicts Flock: there’s too damn much going on. Once I loaded up all my logins (Facebook, WordPress, Blogger, Twitter, Flickr, etc.), what I should have gotten was a streamlined web experience. Instead what I ended up with was a frenetic window full of potential distractors. It’s nice that I can drag a photo from Flickr to a Facebook friend. But what if that potential makes me realize I haven’t written that friend in a while, and I start work on an email to them? Then I read a Tweet on Flock’s sidebar that inspires a blog post? The term “slippery slope” comes to mind.
Eliminating the barriers to over-using certain web sites (even if the barrier is as negligible as manually navigating to the homepage) is a sure way to breed a whole new level of computer addiction. Including my time here in the FC office, I’m on my computer 50+ hours a week without benefit of any new encouragement. Flock, while cool in concept, is a little dangerous to people (like me) who already lead computer-centric lives; it threatens their ability to concentrate when using the web for anything but entertainment purposes. That danger has the potential to turn the computer-reliant into the computer-addicted — and no matter how many Facebook friends you have, you may never see them in real life again.
Flock Verdict: Makes You A Loser
Fuser, a web-based service, is also a product of the strip-mall mentality, but it’s of a different ilk. Because Fuser takes a web-based approach, the underlying assumptions that superintend it are different. Web-based means mobile: good for people too busy to be reliably near their own machine. It also means parsimonious: too many bells and whistles, and the interface becomes slow, cluttered and frustrating.
When you first use Fuser, you put in very basic information about your email addresses and social networks. It very cleverly assumes your identity and ports those pages into itself, making it a sort of dashboard site that compiles all your email accounts (including Exchange, IMAP or POP3) and all your social network accounts. From that point on, you simply login with your Fuser password, and your other accounts get up and running simultaneously. It does this all this with a clean, minimalist interface that is customizable thanks to Ajax-like mini-applications, which serve up everything from email to wall posts to pokes.
Unlike Flock, there’s nothing here you don’t need at a glance; things like Flickr and Twitter, while fun, just aren’t that crucial to most peoples lives that they need to clutter a web app as pragmatic as this one. Thankfully, they don’t.
Even for a Web 2.0 application, there’s an obvious economy to the features the site provides. It doesn’t go far beyond the basic functionality of your webmail or social network communication tools (like messaging and wall posts), and in so doing, presents a healthy roadblock to the temptation to time-waste with Facebook or MySpace.
The site flouts its bare-bones aesthetic in only one instance: the Leaderboard. This custom aggregator, which applies itself to your social networking communication, ranks your friends in order of those you’ve communicated with most frequently in the past few days.
The beauty of the Leaderboard is that it’s just enough of a curiosity (“who really is my best friend?”) to satiate a quick thirst for distraction, but just simple enough — you can’t alter it much, or change the criteria — that you can’t spend all afternoon monkeying with it. It’s like the nicotine inhaler for smokers: it satisfies the essential need of the social network addicts, without the mess of the actual habit.
Fuser Verdict: Does Not Make You A Loser (In fact, makes you smarter).
In sum, both Fuser and Flock seem, at first blush, to share a common goal: the aggregation of numerous communicatory tools. But in practice, Flock is poised to suck a user into web addiction, while Fuser is more likely to encourage healthy and productive web habits. If you’re like me, and you’re already constantly battling the quicksand of procrastination that is the Internet, the latter will be your virtue, and the former, your vice. Choose wisely.