Monday, March 17, 2008

Is fragmentation bad?

Imagine that you've just finished watching a movie and are in the mood to talk about it. How are you going to do that? You could chat with random, semi-anonymous people in the movie theater lobby (assume you went to a theater). You could find a community of people who are big fans of the director or the book that the movie was based on. Or, if you saw the movie with friends or family, maybe you'll discuss it with them.

Which of these options you choose will probably depend on your situation. Sometimes it's fun to hear what "random" people think. If the movie is a little more niche and you're somewhat of a connoisseur, you may not care what random people, or even your friends, think. On the other hand, going to movies is often more about shared experience than it is about the movie itself. We enjoy spending time with our friends and the movie is just something interesting to discuss.

Ultimately, a single movie may spawn millions of separate discussions among millions of different people, all in different situations and contexts.

However, there's a question that no one is asking: Isn't all that fragmentation bad? Instead of having millions of separate discussions, shouldn't we have a single, unified discussion, preferably under the control and ownership of the movie studio?


I enjoy our fragmented movie discussions, and I suspect that I would hate the single, unified, shouting match that would occur if we tried to unify all of those separate discussions. This issue of unified discussion may seem a little silly, but I keep seeing it repeated in the context of blogs and other online content.

People sometimes complain that specialized communities such as are taking the conversation away from the sites that they link to, but I go to news.yc in large part because it has an intelligent and well behaved community. That community is kind of niche -- they mostly talk about programming and startups -- but I'm interested in those same things, so I like it.

On the other hand, I occasionally read the comments on YouTube, but I would never comment there myself. It's too random and belligerent for me.

Most recently, this issue of fragmentation has been brought up a lot when debating FriendFeed. One of things that people really love about FriendFeed are the comments -- it's the only place on the web where I can easily share and discuss things with my actual friends (to see what this looks like, view the things I've shared or the things that I've liked or commented on).

Although comments are one of our most popular features, they are also our most controversial feature. If you believe that there should only be a single, unified discussion, then the extra fragmentation caused by FriendFeed will seem like a step in the wrong direction. In fact, not only is there a separate discussion on FriendFeed, there may be hundreds of separate discussions within FriendFeed on the very same topic or link (because different people are sharing the link, and different people have different friend groups).

I, for one, enjoy the fragmentation. It's important to understand that FriendFeed isn't trying to replace the specialized communities on places such as news.yc, or the screaming hordes on YouTube. We're creating a third option: discussion with friends. It may not be for everyone, and that's fine, but many people really like it, including people who would never participate in broader forums such as TechCrunch or YouTube.