Social Networking and the Flock of Canadian Loonies

By Kurt Cagle
July 13, 2008
Where is the sweet spot of social networking? In some respects its a little odd how dated that particular question has become. Social networking, the art of using the web as a vehicle for promoting, exploring, exploiting and perhaps even destroying relationships between people, has been around for a long time, though the specific terminology used to describe that particular art seems to change with the winds.

Bulletin boards, dial-in sites that provided a place to communicate with other hobbyists (as well as a place to share pictures and games, licit or not), were perhaps the first social networking sites, emerging in the mid-1980s along with the unmistakable dial tone hisses that, for a whole generation, meant that you were "on line".  Chat services came along about the same time, though typically only across wide area networks that shared a common protocol.

More successful such bulletin board owners bought up the smaller ones, consolidating their hold on the market and in time eventually generating mammoth social sites with millions of people communicating with one another - The Well, EarthLink, Compuserve, America Online, MSN. At a time when the Internet consisted largely of static or just barely dynamic content, these paleo-social networks strode the Earth, but even in their success were the seeds of their own demise.

The Internet was not initially intended to be anything more than a highly simplified content management system, but it differed from most of these community networks in one essential way - it was openly available and free. With the advent of using query strings and posted content as a way of communicating between browser and server, the early web was "interactive" but not truly a threat to the social networking scene ... and then the browser wars began, and the web went into hyperdrive.

One by one, the dedicated, sleek gated social networking communities fell as people realized that the web didn't require specialized hardware, specialized software, or $19.95 a month subscription fees. Companies such as Yahoo came along with their own web communities, rendered not in specialized applications, but rather running right there in the browser. Along the way it defined, at least for a certain period of time, what exactly constituted social networking, even as the closed system vendors found themselves hemorrhaging members, and with them money.

Such social networks exist like night clubs; the difference between a successful nightclub and a dead bar is as much a matter of luck than anything - a new gimmick that gets picked up by the trendsetters, a scandalous incident, a hot new band or singer. People flock in, drawn by the attention the club is getting and perhaps the desire to seem cool (l33t, random, fill in the slang term of the day).

Yet even as people are drawn to such hot spots, the trendsetters recognize that what had been exciting and perhaps a little naughty has become tawdry and dull, and they move on. It is for this reason that social networks seem to rise and fall in waves of between eighteen and thirty six months, until near the end, the club has reached a stable size, but is no longer the place to be. 

It is precisely for this reason that anyone tapping into aspects of social networking need to understand full well that, perhaps more than most areas of computing technology, social networks are as ephemeral as mayflies, and consequently operate in ways that seem odd in comparison to most forms of application development.

Flocking to the Browser

Flock 2.0 (http://www.flock.com) is a comparatively new browser, based upon Mozilla Firefox, that was designed from the ground up as a Social Networking "application". Designed to cover the major domains within that field - blogging, media manipulation, search, syndication and social community interaction - Flock represents a novel approach of using the browser in a dedicated fashion as both the vehicle and the gateway for devotees of social networking services.

One of the most significant (and in many ways least understood) reason for Firefox's phenomenal success over the years has been its extension mechanism. Unlike those of most other browser manufacturers, you do not need to be a strong expert in C++ or .NET development in order to write such extensions, and you could use the native XUL XML library developed by Mozilla for its own internal component development and a smidgen of JavaScript to add new components to the browser platform.

For this reason, there are literally thousands of such extensions, including extensions to handle most if not all aspects of social browsing - from creation of blogs to viewing images and videos to filtering through and listening to music. Unfortunately, when you throw these components together, you also add considerably to the memory footprint that the browser requires for the simplest page, not to mention dealing with registry problems when a collision does occur.

In 2005, Bart Decrem, Geoffrey Arone and Anthony Young, along with Shasta Ventures investor Jason Pressman set about to create a specialized browser that could be used to exploit the then white-hot social networking space (blogging had exploded into public consciousness the year before, and companies such as Flickr and YouTube were ramping up dramatically at that point). Their idea was simple - since Firefox was currently becoming a megahit and was also an open source project, they would start with the foundations for Firefox and create a new browser specifically oriented towards social networking in all of its manifestations.

Another company, America Online, the purchasers of the initial Netscape browser after it washed up on the rocks of Microsoft's IE juggernaut, had tried to take a similar approach before, with mixed success. After getting comparatively little traction for developing a new Netscape version in 2004, they turned to Victoria, BC Canada based company Mercurial to create their new browser, and after a year of development, released Netscape 8.0.

However, larger factors (not unrelated to the ebb and flow of social networking sites) set AOL into the same game of merger bingo that has most recently hit another social networking site - Yahoo. While in the end that process resulted in Google buying up a significant share of AOL to keep its ad revenues and deal alive, the resultant battering knocked loose a number of projects, including the new Netscape Browser, and Mercurial, ultimately unable to absorb the last, eventually folded up shop.

Meanwhile, Flock, as a Silicon Valley startup, was attracting big press (and a healthy audience) but running into a problem that had ironically plagued Netscape as well. Although building extensions to the Firefox platform was a comparatively simple process, there were still comparatively few people out there who had the skills to build an entire browser, and not surprisingly most of those people had migrated to Mozilla or Google.

In early 2007, Mercurial's former COO, Clayton Stark, flew down to San Francisco to talk with the Flock management with a simple offer - hire him and the nucleus of the Netscape development team to go work on Flock. Stark, a darkly handsome and energetic Canadian tech entrepreneur, then managed to rebuild the Victoria team including architect Chris Campbell, and in the space of a year jump-started the Flock development process, culminating in the release of a Flock 2.0 beta version which has been closely tracking the Firefox 3.0 release, with Stark becoming Vice President of Engineering for Flock in the process.

Flock Features

Flock itself is an interesting bird. While styled as a browser, Flock is in fact more of a specialized platform that combines all the tools that a "social networker" might wish to use than a formal browser, though certainly you can "browse" with it in much the same way you can with Firefox.

Flock 2.0 Screen Shot

Still, there is no mistaking the obvious social aspects of Flock, especially in the 2.0b1 release. For instance, if you are a media maven - either video or images with accounts on YouTube, Flickr, Truveo, Picassa, Photobucket or similar services, you can retrieve up to the minute feeds of images or video previews based upon any keyword, appearing in a bin along the top of the browser panes. Clicking on them will retrieve the pages that the images come from.

Indeed, one of the key strengths that Flock has is its ability to upload and manage remote assets, especially images and video, cleanly and with clear indications that the resources have in fact safely arrived at the respective services (such as Flickr or PhotoBucket). The role of the media bar in this respect is even more useful, as this interface makes it comparatively easy to tag and annotate such content without having to go through individual custom applications.

A significant amount of social networking is increasingly based upon syndication, and syndication forms a truly impressive part of the Flock browser. Out of the box Flock is designed as a news feed reader, and adding new feeds to your list of options is as simple as dragging a feed URL to a folder in the reader list. This makes it a particularly handy tool for both following syndicated news content as well as for reading the universe of blogs on the Internet.

Such blogging is also a central feature of Flock, which includes its own built-in WYSIWYG blogging editor. The editor is fairly bare-bones as such things go (having become used to the bells and whistles of FCKEditor I could wish for more of that functionality), but it has a remarkably well developed blog discovery engine. I found that I could set up my blog account in under a minute directly to a Drupal site I'd set up simply by giving the URL of the site - once I passed in my user-name and password, the engine was able to quickly discover all of the potential blog services that the site offered.  That the blogging engine can work offline makes this even more attractive, especially when blogging events where wireless Internet connectivity cannot be taken for granted.

Similarly, you can enable a Twitter account from within Flock that lets you post single line messages to the Twitter service from a sidebar window. As someone who communicates with Twitter largely through my laptop's IM rather than an SMS cell phone, I've been somewhat put off Twitter because of their recent problems with IM integration - the twitter feature in Flock may very well make me rethink that.

This messaging capability extends to email itself. If you have a webmail account of some sort that uses either SMTP/POP3 or IMAP (such as Google's GMail) you can see at a glance how much mail is currently waiting for you, can load the webmail Create Message interface or send a page via email through the browser interface, rather than the webmail interface.

The integration with web applications such as Facebook is not all that surprising, given the clearly articulated Facebook API. Indeed, is you happen to be a strong Facebook afficianado, the user interfaces that Flock provides for you in that regard are useful, if not altogether comprehensive. Flock similarly provides support for MySpace.

This however, does get to one of the most persistent nubs I found while working with the application, one which has to do with the realities of both the marketplace and the still somewhat tenuous commonality of social networking site APIs. For all that activities such as Google's OpenSocial are trying to build a common mechanism for communication across such sites, such common social APIs are still some ways out, and have to contend with a raft of both existing legacy proprietary APIs and an online culture that sees controlling the publishing channels as the only thing that gives them an edge over other proprietary or open services.

What this means for Flock, unfortunately, is that it will always be chasing a moving target. For instance, while I tend to use FaceBook sparingly at best, I personally happen to use LinkedIn quite often. At this stage, at least with Flock 2 Beta 1, Flock has no agreement with LinkedIn (though one may be in the works), which means that while I can use the site through the browser, there's no way that I can currently integrate LinkedIn applications into Flock itself.

However, even here, according to Mr. Stark, the team at Flock aren't standing still. The company has worked hard to establish relationships with as many players in the social networking space as possible, and this process recognizes the fact that those players change over time. For now, this means that the organization is constantly fighting a battle between keeping the browser as trim as possible while at the same time making sure that it can communicate effectively with as much public web APIs as possible. Efforts such as OpenSocial and OpenSearch simplify their efforts somewhat, but until the former especially becomes adopted in the social networking space, Flock's principle value-add is its efforts to stay on top of such a rapidly changing marketplace.

Flock has also had to establish its own relationship (and identity) vis-a-vis the Mozilla Firefox mothership. It is tempting to see Flock as being little more than a Firefox clone with a number of extensions, but this view would be wrong - Flock has been optimized as a social browser, and as such while it is possible to put together a Flock-like application using Firefox extensions, the memory overhead to make that happen gets to be prohibitive.

Yet in attempting to solve these particular memory problems, Clayton and the Flock team have also established a solid reputation within Mozilla itself by feeding these optimizations back to the Mozilla Firefox development team, including such things as moving away from the fairly inefficient RDF storage mechanism and taking advantage of the new offline SQLLite capabilities that Mozilla introduced late into their 2.x development cycle, offering a significant improvement in performance and speed of access, not to mention opening up the offline capabilities to operations (such as blogging) that lend themselves to offline interactions.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed. Flock is gaining a particularly strong following among those people who most heavily use social networking capabilities, but its also drawing the attention of investment firms, even in this uncertain financial era. Most recently, Flock received a $15 million investment from Fidelity Ventures, in conjunction with investment money from Bessemer Venture Partners, Catamount Ventures, and Shasta Ventures (who had participated in two previous investment rounds). Much of this money is now going towards expanding the reach of Flock in the international market, especially in Europe, where Flock enthusiasts in Germany, England, and France are driving significant adoption of the browser in their native languages.

Yet in addition to getting Flock to the 2.0 milestone, the Victorian, BC, Flock team had another goal - they were working hard to insure that among the many localizations that the browser will have as it crosses that signpost is one near and dear to their hearts - the first Canadian version of Flock ... eh.


You might also be interested in:


Popular Topics

Archives

Or, visit our complete archives.

Recommended for You

Got a Question?