As expected, address and calendar organizer Plaxo unveiled on Monday its Pulse social-networking site.
Rumors about Plaxo expanding into social networking have been floating about recently; the company confirmed them to a number of press outlets last week and made some screenshots available in advance.
Now you can play with the beta service yourself. But don't call it a social-networking site; Pulse is really one part microblogging platform and one part RSS (Really Simple Syndication) reader. And despite the fact that such a description sounds nauseatingly Web 2.0 pitchy, this is a service that Plaxo hopes will appeal to a less technologically adept set of users.
Overall, Pulse's interface is a lot like Pownce in the sense that it's a feed of short clips of media from your friends, co-workers and whoever else you'd like to stalk; you can add comments to anything, too. There's also an internal Twitter- or Pownce-like feature with which you can input short messages or links to add to the mix. (Pulse, however, does not appear to allow you to share files or event invitations the way Pownce does.)
Also Pownce-like is the set of privacy controls that are a bit more extensive than what one might expect from the likes of a social-media site (Pownce one-upped Twitter by allowing both public and friends-only posts; Twitter requires its users to pick between one or the other for all posts).
With Pulse, you can opt to share information publicly or only with designated "family," "friends," and "co-worker" groups. There's no way to create custom groups, which is unfortunate, but this will still likely be appealing to many casual Web users who are a bit taken aback by the social-networking crowd's willingness to throw so much personal information onto the Internet.
There's clearly some microblog influence in Pulse, but the really central feature is the incorporation of "people feeds," or RSS feeds from a number of social-media sites, most of which you can add simply by entering your username. (Tip: You can also share any regular RSS feed by selecting the "blog" option in the list of choices and then inputting its feed's XML address.)
The list of Pulse-compatible "people feeds" is currently limited to a handful of services popular with the consumer market and a few that are very much the domain of the trendy early-adopter set: Amazon.com wish lists, AOL Pictures, Delicious, Digg, Flickr, Jaiku, Last.fm, LiveJournal, MySpace.com, Picasa, Pownce, Smugmug, Tumblr, Twitter, Webshots, Windows Live Spaces, Xanga, Yahoo 360, Yelp, YouTube.
Plaxo has said the beta service will soon have much more feed functionality. The feeds currently do not refresh as quickly as I'd like them to, but perhaps that's another beta feature that will soon be ironed out=.
There is one really counterintuitive aspect to Pulse: it allows you to aggregate RSS feeds and make the overall feed privacy-protected, but many of the feeds in question are inherently public in the first place.
You might not want prospective employers seeing, for example, that you post a lot on Yelp about which restaurants have the best lunch hour cocktail specials that will leave you nice and sozzled for an afternoon at the office. But all Yelp feeds are technically public; even though you might uncheck the "business contacts" option when sharing that feed on Pulse, the aforementioned prospective employer could easily find the information otherwise by checking your e-mail address against a service like Yelp. Pulse, in that respect, may give some users--especially those who are fairly new to the world of the social Web--a false sense of security.
Pulse will likely give a considerable advantage to Plaxo in that it puts a friendlier face to a networking site that, as of now, has a strictly business reputation: kind of like Plaxo's version of the cute BlackBerry Pearl. There is nothing really revolutionary about any of the technology behind it, but it does present concepts like microblogging and RSS aggregation in a way that just about anyone's mom could easily understand.
If anything, Pulse is evidence that the "microblogging" model may not have run out of steam quite yet. Services like Twitter, Pownce, and Tumblr have been hailed as borderline revolutionary by social-media junkies, but they've failed to make much of a blip on the radar of the average Web user. While we probably won't see our less tech-savvy friends using Twitter any time soon, Pulse is evidence that similar concepts can nevertheless appeal to the more Luddite-inclined among us.