August 23, 2008

Strands Lifestreaming Beta High On Potential and Filters

There's no question the lifestreaming space has just exploded over the last year, with services like Plaxo Pulse and FriendFeed leading the way, accompanied by MyBlogLog, SocialThing, Profilactic and others. Practically all services aggregate your social activity across networks and let you display it in one area, with the option to follow friends and interact with their activity. One of the newest in this space is Strands, which bills itself as a destination site for people to discover new recommended items around the Web from friends. The service, currently in private beta, has some very interesting features, but also has a lot of room to go to supplant one of the bigger names.

As with the many other alternatives out there, you start your activity on Strands by adding your many services around the Web, starting with the most well-known services, like Twitter, Google Reader and Delicious, but the service also supports several other sites not commonly found elsewhere, including Webshots, BlockBuster, Hype Machine and Meneame.

When you add these services, as with other competitors, Strands creates a feed for you, which can then be subscribed to by other users.

As you currently can only get into Strands by being invited, you will start out with at least one friend, but you can find more users by seeing who your friends follow, or by clicking the people button at the top of the page. Strands, as far as I know, has the best array of ways to discover new followers, showing you who is the most followed, who's new to the site, or who is the top by a specific category, like Blogs, Images, Music or Bookmarks. Each person's profile is displayed with their avatar, gender, age and location. You can also search by name or e-mail.

Once you have subscribed to a few people, you can see their activity on Strands' Home screen, which displays, chronologically, the item posted, who added it, the service it originated from. You can then take action on those items with a simple Like or Dislike, indicated by thumbs up or thumbs down, you can comment on the item, click a pushpin to indicate an item is saved, or click an arrow to forward the item to those who follow you. (The equivalent of resharing on FriendFeed)

The interface for Strands if both cluttered and spartan at the same time, if that makes any sense.

Unlike FriendFeed, which offers a clean white background, soft gray text for comments, but little else, except a top navigation bar, Strands offers a wide array of ways to sift through the noise and find specific items. You can filter your feed by people who just follow you, you can show your own feed, or show subgroups of your friends. For example, I started a group called "Digerati", that includes Chris Brogan, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Corvida and others on the site.

You can also filter by category, including Blogs & Notes, Images, Music, Movies & TV, Bookmarks and others. FriendFeed offers this functionality by service by clicking on the service icon, but it's not spelled out, nor does it group similar services (like Delicious and Magnolia for instance). On top of filters, you also have "Hot Posts" which show items popular with your friends, marked by likes and comments, and the ability to have granularity, so you don't share all services with all people. For example, you may want to share some items with friends, but not family or coworkers.

The many different options on Strands make it useful to find things fast, but it also shoehorns the Home feed into a small center position. Arguably, this is the most important part of the site, so its power is greatly diminished. Strands also doesn't auto-refresh, asking you to click a refresh icon on the page, or in your browser. This gives the site more of a static feeling than other sites which do autorefresh, where it seems new data is constantly coming in.

Also, like most good services today, Strands offers a desktop alternative to the Web site with an Adobe AIR application, which keeps you updated on your friends' activity and watches your iTunes to capture what you're listening to, as well as a bookmarklet.

Does the world need another lifestreaming service? With so many on the market, it's interesting to see what aspects one site will get right or what they'll miss. Strands doesn't have the feeling of community today that FriendFeed does, given its newness and obscurity. And like many engineering-driven services, it can be seen at times to have sacrificed the user experience for more features. I've said previously that "the feature war is the wrong war" for social media, which needs to find new ways to connect people, their likes and their activity. Strands does a good job letting me drill down into specific areas, or in helping find new folks, but I'm hoping they can reduce some of the site clutter, and make the site really come to life.

As the service is in private beta, I have a very small number of invites, so leave your e-mail in the comments if you are interested, and I'll see what I can do.
DISCLOSURE: I was introduced to Strands by Drew Olanoff, the Community Manager at Strands, who started there in July. Drew is also the CTO of ReadBurner, where I am an advisor, and hold a small equity position. While Drew gave me an account to test Strands, he did not request an article, nor review this in any way.