April 23, 2008

Plaxo Pulse Making Strides, But to What End?

In the spirit of unifying comments from disparate services across the Web, Plaxo and Disqus made a strong announcement Tuesday, giving users the ability to have comments made within their lifestreaming service, Plaxo Pulse, to flow back to the original blog. The company's VP of Marketing, John McCrea, eagerly said the addition was a natural response to the discussion a few weeks ago around fractured comments and how many bloggers wanted to maintain a central repository for activity. And it is indeed a good addition, but I still need a big push before I'm on the Plaxo bandwagon.

There's no question Plaxo Pulse has been an interesting development within the service over the last year. But the company's origins, as a business contacts database, similar to LinkedIn, have led to it being seen as a business tool. For me, the contacts I have in Plaxo, thanks to many invites over the years, are largely colleagues, business contacts, or partners - in contrast to more social databases, including Facebook, Twitter or FriendFeed, which are comprised of Web peers, casual acquaintances and friends.

Some shared items in the Plaxo Pulse feed

Due to this basic difference, while I have the willingness to share my Digg, Del.icio.us, Last.fm, Google Reader Shared items and other activity on some services, I'm much less likely to do so in Plaxo, and by extension, I would also be uncomfortable offering comments on Plaxo contacts' blog posts, etc.

What Plaxo is asking me to do, by asking me to start streaming my content in Pulse and interact with contacts, is to proverbially mix business with pleasure, in a way that will certainly muddy up how I'm interpreted, as contacts start to see me on a casual, personal level, and not through the usual, more professional routes of communication. While I'm certain the company is under intense pressure to leverage the contact databases they have on their site and become a full-fledged social network, like Facebook, I feel that making a shift of this kind runs contrary to their original intentions, making it extremely difficult to succeed.

Plaxo lets you distinguish between family, friends and work.

This isn't to say Plaxo hasn't considered the problem of making such a dramatic shift in the public eye without losing its existing customer base. No doubt with the issues I brought up in mind, Plaxo has enabled categories of contacts, from "Business" to "Friends" and "Family", making it possible that I could show my personal streaming data only to Friends and not Business contacts, for instance. That's a smart move, one I expect other lifestreaming services to borrow. But not even this granularity solves the basic problem of what the site is known for and what they're now trying to be. Putting wings on a car doesn't make it an airplane.

Just because a business network starts to add social functionality doesn't make it a social network who would be a willing audience for my other activity on the Web. And that goes for LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn is a fantastic tool for showing connections to others, for doing research on companies, and keeping tabs on contacts who change companies. But I wouldn't want to take what is essentially an online resume being viewed by colleagues, recruiters and potential employers, and start to crowd that data with the songs I like, the posts I write, and the stories I Digg. Even if all my comments were kept in a single place, why would I want to start that conversation there anyway?

So the core question exists: Can Plaxo make a successful transition away from acting as a business contacts repository and into a social network with lifestreaming capabilities? It takes more than simple aggregation to become a destination site, and while I respect the efforts that have been made so far, and their optimistic direction, I'm quite tentative to take the plunge. Are we instead moving to one massive database with friends, family and business across all services, or is the delineation I still have in my head as to which site does what still valid?