Sunday, July 13, 2008

Swurl and Second Brain: Feeding your past into the present

On the day you join a typical social aggregator, such as FriendFeed, SocialThing, or Tumblr, that’s pretty much the day you’re born. You add Twitter, Flickr, Del.icio.us, Google Reader, etc., and all your new or recent items begin flowing into your “lifestream.” As far as FriendFeed knows, you are a social media duckling tentatively wading into the noise. For the first time, you’re collecting all your webernet squawkings in one place.

But if you’re like me, you’re probably a social media veteran. I’ve been on Flickr since 2004. Del.icio.us since 2005. I joined Twitter just after its SXSW breakout in 2007. In other words, I’ve got lots of history that FriendFeed and Tumblr aren’t capturing.

Two new-ish social aggregators, Swurl and Second|Brain, are tackling this problem in distinctly different fashions. Like Friendfeed and SocialThing, each site allows you to merge your various identities into one single feed or stream. But both services also dig deep into your social media past to create a more complete—and completely searchable—summary of your online activities. It’s this comprehensive approach to aggregation that I think makes these services seem more like a notebook or diary than a present-tense “stream” of activity.

Swurl

image As founder Ryan Sit noted in Ars Technica’s excellent overview, Swurl focuses on collecting your social activities into an attractive blog-like home front. To this end, it gives each item a different look and feel depending on its source. Items from Twitter look like comic bubbles. Songs from Last.fm include album art. YouTube favorites display a full-size video. Most impressively, Flickr sets are quickly browsable on a single page. Comments can be added to any item via a simple, subtle interface. Like SocialThing, Swurl will automatically import items from your friends. The overall look and feel is similar to WordPress’s default Kubrick theme.

If that were where Swurl stopped, it would be souped-up Tumblr competitor. But Swurl brings something unique to the party: a timeline that includes a full history imported from each site you’ve added to the service. You can view these thumbnail archives by year or you can choose the “all” view. In my case, this means you can view activity going back to 2003. And each one of the hundreds or thousands of thumbnails links to a full size post within Swurl (not the source site).

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Swurl is an uber-blog; an aggregator powerful enough to import the full text and pics from every Blogger, Wordpress, or Typepad blog you’ve ever used, plus your activities from sites like Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon. All items can be searched with surprising speed, with results presented in minimalist AJAX style. Your past can’t be accessed from every site, but if you import your blogs and stuff from Delicious, Flickr, and Twitter, you can recreate a database of your recent online history that’s both beautiful and a little unnerving.

Second|Brain

image A few days ago, I talked about the differences between Friendfeed and Del.icio.us, and I concluded that if Del.icio.us had “become FriendFeed” or added similar features, it would suffer a loss of focus and utility. A few days later I discovered Secondbrain, which is basically Del.icio.us + Friendfeed. Actually, Secondbrain is even more ambitious; it aims to be your “personal content library” by making it “really easy to manage all your bookmarks, social media and files in one place.” Like Swurl, Secondbrain allows you to import all your past activity from established social sites, such as Twitter, Flickr, Del.icio.us, YouTube, and Google Reader.

image But unlike Swurl, Secondbrain doesn’t want to be your blog; it wants to be your database. Despite its social features, Secondbrain is determined to be a useful solo project as well. For example, SecondBrain allows you to import private photos and bookmarks, while keeping them private. Even more impressive is the focus on documents and files. Secondbrain links up with Google Docs, ZohoDocs, Scribd, and Box, to bring you a comprehensive view of your online work activity. You can also upload your own documents, with 1000 megabytes of space to start with. Like other items, documents can be shared or private.

What I like most about SecondBrain is the focus on core functions usually ignored by other aggregation services: reference and recall. SecondBrain unifies your tag cloud by importing your tags from other services. You can then search and filter your items by tag until you’ve found exactly what you’re looking for. Of course, you can also perform a simple text search. And once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you can add the items to a collection, which can be shared with the community (complete with comments and 5-star rating system).

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Unfortunately, Secondbrain suffered a few hiccups in my tests. Full text search was either slow or non-responsive. I got an error message about 50% of the time. Also, Secondbrain had trouble importing my Del.icio.us bookmarks, collecting only 79 of more than 1,700 bookmarks. That’s going to have to be fixed, because without my bookmarks, Secondbrain isn’t going to be very useful.

Swurl: A-
Second|Brain: C+

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