23 January 2010

Web-based alternatives for the Facebook interface

Everybody these days seems to compare Facebook to Twitter in terms of growth or features. But there is one area where the difference between them is huge: the third-party clients. While Twitter users have dozens, if not hundreds of applications to choose from, both for desktop and on the web, Facebook only has a handful. In this article I will focus on the web-based clients that can be used to access your Facebook updates.

Phineas Brizzly in the Facebook outfit As far as I know, Brizzly was the first Twitter client to integrate the Facebook stream. Since it’s my favorite Twitter client, I also tied it to my Facebook account. At first there were some problems displaying the updates, like posts missing or Facebook failing to load altogether, but that seems to be mostly fixed by now.

Compared to the Facebook home page, which now has two different feeds and can change when you least expect it, Brizzly offers the user an unique stream of updates, chronologically. It’s fairly similar to the ‘Live Feed’, but hides all the extra information about people joining groups or getting new friends. Depending on your preferences, this could be a significant improvement. As far as I can tell, Brizzly also hides all the applications or connections that you have hidden on Facebook.

Facebook comments expanded by default in Brizzly Of course, Brizzly isn’t limited to displaying Facebook updates: you can also change your status message, write on people’s wall, like/unlike and comment on their posts. What I find very nice in Brizzly is how comments are generally displayed by default, compared to the way Facebook shows only the two most recent ones. This way you can comfortably browse the stream without clicking ‘View all comments’ every other minute. There is probably some limit to the number of comments Brizzly shows, because they are hidden for posts with hundreds of them, but this setup is much better than the original for me. If you hover over a comment, the timestamp pops up, along with an option to delete it, if it’s your own.

An interesting enhancement is the ‘Recent activity’-view, which is just the posts that you’ve liked and commented on, and posts of yours on which your friends have done the same, as explained on their blog. Sort of a Facebook “News Feed”, but centered around your profile and with a clear algorithm.

If you’re familiar with Brizzly as a Twitter client, then you already know some of the other improvements you can expect, like Gmail-style keyboard shortcuts to navigate through the posts. The ‘Home’ and ‘Recent activity’ links on the top left turn bold and notify the user with a blue bubble about new content in either of these views. Also, short links, along with media like photos, videos and maps, are expanded inline, something Facebook should implement. Facebook status in Brizzly with expanded link

Unfortunately, there are also a lot of things you cannot do in Brizzly: you cannot post links, nor upload photos and videos to Facebook, delete posts, edit your profile, manage your friends or use the chat. And forget about Farmville or any other game or app! Also, most of the links lead back to Facebook, e.g. if you want to see a photo album shared by a friend.

So, whereas Brizzly is a major step forward from the Twitter interface, it’s still lacking in many areas compared to Facebook. Personally, I suspect this has mainly to do with the data Brizzly is allowed to access from Facebook and ultimately with the attitudes of the two social networks towards external developers. Twitter has benefitted from letting others grow applications on their platform, Facebook instead runs applications inside it’s domain and this way carefully channels more and more users and views to it and, naturally, to the advertising. Until third-party clients can provide some revenue back to Facebook, I don’t think we can expect another company to offer a full-featured alternative interface for Facebook users.

Another Twitter client that offers Facebook integration is Hootsuite, starting about two months ago. Besides the fact that I don’t like the whole ‘tabs combined with columns’-approach, most of the points presented until now still apply, with some notable exceptions. There is also a ‘Recent activity’-view, but like all stream in Hootsuite, you have to add it manually. It doesn’t expand links and doesn’t have inline video, instead you get a small window hovering, where you can play videos. But what I dislike most in Hootsuite’s interface is the way it handles comments and likes (or should I say ‘mishandles’?): all comments are hidden behind a small link, and you also don’t get to know if there are any until you click it! You can ‘like’ updates, but there’s no indicator of that afterwards, so if you return after several hours, you will be left wondering if you liked it before or should click the button now! Now that’s a good example of bad user interface! Here’s a picture of the same status as before, now seen in Hootsuite:Facebook status update in Hootsuite

For RSS lovers or Google Reader fans, there is always the option to use a feed reader to receive updates from Facebook, as explained here. And those less adventurous can stay close to home, trying out Facebook Lite! Are there other online applications that you use as Facebook clients? What features do they offer?

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