A couple of years ago, they were everywhere: fresh, design-savvy start-ups, taking everything you might ever want to know your friends were doing on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Digg, and goodness knows what else.
Social-network feed aggregators--FriendFeed, Socialthing, Plaxo's Pulse--have been part of the dizzying array of Web apps ever since it became evident that the average Internet user was using more than one of these nifty social-media services and just might want to have them all in one place. But they've been on the way out for some time: FriendFeed sold to Facebook, and Socialthing to AOL, both brands buried within their sprawling new owners. And earlier this week, another small start-up in the space, the well-regarded Streamy, announced that it had closed its doors; one co-founder departed for Facebook, the second for social-gaming powerhouse Zynga.
The demise of Streamy is one more sign of something that was already evident: Facebook--and to a lesser extent, Twitter--has completely won this game.
FriendFeed and Socialthing, the two aggregators that made notable exits, were built by solid engineering and design teams who have since moved on to greener pastures--FriendFeed's team is in-house at Facebook now, and Socialthing's founders are tackling new projects. But outside of the relatively small crowd of the Web's hard-core early adopters, the vast majority of these start-ups proved to have little mainstream appeal. It had nothing to do with who was behind them, but rather the core concepts; the average Web user simply doesn't use enough social-media services to have any desire to use something that will drag hundreds of contacts' minute Web activities into one place.
Through Facebook Connect, you can pull your Digg votes and Flickr photos onto your Facebook profiles--that is, if you're using Digg rather than Facebook's own "sharing" to promote the news you read, and Flickr rather than Facebook's own photo uploads. And for Twitter users, many of their contacts already tweet out links to new blog posts, photo galleries, and other various developments on the Web. For the smaller crowd that uses Twitter for news gathering, it's become a very simplified aggregator in itself.
And that early-adopter crowd, too, now has less reason to want to use a more complex aggregator. The pack of social-networking services has thinned out, and you're no longer going to encounter a frustrated blogger who absolutely needs to keep in touch with contacts on Jaiku and Pownce as well as Twitter. Now it's down to Facebook and Twitter, more or less, and any Twitter client can pull the two together. That's plenty for just about all of us.
If there's any kind of elephant in the room, it's Google Buzz, which uses Gmail's interface to pull in Twitter-like chatter as well as activities across other Google properties like Google Reader. But it experienced a massive contact-importing privacy blunder right out of the gate, and there are concerns that it will favor content coming through Google-owned channels over third-party services (which aren't yet integrated)--say, a geo-tagged Buzz post as opposed to a Foursquare check-in. It still has potentially huge muscle, but its Facebook-killing potential is less forceful than many thought.
Right now, people are talking about aggregation in the context of geolocation, one of the few niches of social media that's still legitimately spread out over different services like Foursquare, Gowalla, and Brightkite. There's no obvious winner yet, which has led some to suggest that the space needs an aggregator to pull "check-ins" from disparate services into a user's single, universal feed. But if the past is any indicator, the end result will be that this space will clean itself up and in a few months to a few years, no such aggregator will be needed.
And at the same time, the general social-feed aggregator may finally have found a far smaller niche where it can succeed: As part of the lead-up to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival that begins next week in Austin, Texas, an aggregation start-up called Cliqset began to promote its partnership with social-media company Mashable on its "Austin Real-Time" site. It's a hub that pulls together all varieties of digital content gushing out of the event, from Foursquare and Gowalla check-ins to Twitter posts and Picasa photos. If you're an outsider looking in, or a SXSWi attendee nursing a midday hangover from a hotel room, then yes, you want everything to make you feel immersed in the experience. But as something you'll follow for the rest of the year? Of course not.
In other words, we don't want the floodgates to be open all the time. But in the right time and place, they have their role. The social-network aggregator was an outcropping of the enthusiasm surrounding the novelty that was social media a few years ago, and the impatience over so much competition in the space. But these things mature, and the winners emerge, and that competition starts to fade.
If anything, the overzealous explosion of social aggregation start-ups a few years ago is a sign that even in the urgent, someone-else-will-beat-you-to-it climate of the Web, sometimes things will just shake out over time.