Revving a classic cliché

Flock - Let's Blog

So there’s been some more talk lately about Flock and extensions and relevancy and Performancing’s new blogging tool for Firefox. I’m all for it. The more we talk about open source, about Firefox, about Flock, about coming up with better, cooler, faster and more usable technology, the more we’re inclined to just go build it. And in doing so, make sure that it’s relevant and actually meets the needs of real people.

I have to admit though, the potshots at Flock are becoming a little … tiresome.

So ok, I’m all about being skeptical. I’m all about looking a gift horse in the mouth, in its eyes, and … elsewhere… yah. (Y’know, you gotta make sure there’s no sneaky Greeks lurking about or whatever.)

And this post was going to about that old information autobahn thing and how there’s plenty of room for one more automobile manufacturer. And that was going to be my analogy for why Flock is a good thing for drivers, etc, etc. But I decided that’s a dumb idea. And boring to write. So let me get right down to it.

Here’s the thing. We’ve actually been pretty certain for some time that most of the features that we build into Flock will be eventually be ported back over to Firefox as extensions. Or become commodity features in other browsers. That’s the way open source should work — and the way software development plays off itself — and we’re totally in support of that! The point is not to make a bunch of proprietary tools that only work in Flock. That would be rediculous and counterproductive. I mean, our goal is to make using all the great tools now available on the web easier to use by building a more consistent user experience. Yeah, that’s our big top secret plan.

So why build our own browser if we’re in support of this whole extension model anyway? Well, let me paint a picture of my vision for Flock and why it at all makes sense that we continue doing what we’re doing, no matter how many extensions come out and attempt to mirror our featureset.

Cue lights … cameras rolling… pull curtains … 5, 4, 3…

So in the olden days, there was a web of interconnected computers and file servers and yada yada that were conceived of as a massive network of libraries containing all kinds of hyperlinked data and information. Now, pieces of that data had individual addresses, just like books in libraries had unique identifiers called Dewey decimal numbers. Thus pieces had a static position in the system and you used a web browser to pull up those pieces of data. So when someone added a piece of information to the network, say an online shrine about their cat, it got its own address, acronymically known as a URL.

So so so, jump forward in time a bit. Welcome to today, a time of spheresblaw-go…spheres… where currency is measured by one’s attention-magnetism and linkification, where if you don’t have a blog, you don’t have a pulse and you’re dead, kaput, worse than history, see ya later, sayonara, did you even exist in the first place? Oh yeah and what’s your feed again?

Hmm. So let’s slow it down a second here. Get this, here it comes, I’ve got a visual metaphor to sink yourself into: so say you’re walking down the street, a crowded street. Let’s put you in Manhattan, or Boston, DC, Copenhagen, Tokyo wherever. Look, it’s busy. 10,000 people trampling the sidewalk concrete and they’re all in chaos, no no, wait, calm, but y’know, this is chaos theory in motion.

This is 100,000 people walking down the concrete towards you, you, you’re walking the other way — who knows why? you just are — and there are these crescendoing voices around you, swirling, smashing conversations. You’re grasping at words, sounds; the ring of cell phones, change being dropped between high heels and rubber soles. A cacophonic masterpiece of human communication.

So listen, you hear something, it piques your interest, you think to yourself, “Aha.

Moving towards it, crowd parting in front of you, shoulders meeting; you sideways, all arms and elbows, towards the sound. One motion, you blur, find the source. Listen, speak, are heard, enlightenment and voice. This is conversation. This is fleeting. This is connection and this is what sustains you.

Now there are ten of you. Ten. Or maybe ten hundred. And each one of you is having this experience. As you weave your way in and out of the throng, you’re merging and joining ongoing; nascent; 1,000-year-old conversations. Say your piece, move on. Don’t stay too long, surely something else as interesting is being said … just around the corner.



Curtain down, lights go on; watch your eyes, it’s bright.

Now that, that picture, that experience, that’s the web. Yeh, that’s the web today except imagine it with your eyes closed, with blinders on, with the sound fuzzed out and staticy, with orange icons all over the friggin’ place. And yes, every now and then some jack-in-the-box assclown pops up trying to sell you V_1agra.

It almosts make me want to go back to the old library model.

But no, see, that’s where Flock comes in. Or I don’t care, don’t call it Flock. Whatever you want, but that’s where the thing we’re building comes in. That’s why we exist, that’s why we matter, that’s what the point is.

Yeah, Firefox and Duct tape, it’ll help. Sure sure. It’ll get you some of the way there. But hell, when I’m talking to someone, engaged in a conversation that threatens my very existence, or that threatens to change the way I flip my omelettes, man, I do not want my mouth to fall off at the jaw because it wasn’t tested, wasn’t built right, didn’t have a million beady eyes boring down on it while it was being fastened to my head, making sure the stupid thing would function in the real world without needing pliers or a tire-iron to get it to work right. No, I do not want my memory to hiccup, to recede, for me to lose my place in line, to have my line of thinking severed when I’m talking to someone else. I need to be there, fully, to be there in the conversation, as a whole, as one integrated thing, yes yes, a fully functioning machine. No, I don’t want to be some bootstrapped, schizophrenic, unintuitive, semi-confused and incomplete afterthought kludged together and mistaken for a vision of the real thing. No, I want more than that, I want to be as in the conversations that I have online as the ones I have offline — I want to get to the point where there is no difference, that a conversation is a conversation is a conversation. It’s sharing understanding and it’s sharing confusion. I need a tool that helps me achieve that. It needs to understand things the way I understand them; it needs to reflect the reality of what’s going on online today.

When was the last time you thought twice about the fact that you’re talking to a digital signal every time you use your cell phone?

Or how about the fact that your instant messages (which indeed seem so instant) actually travel over thousands of other people’s computers and servers before they reach you?

And your email? Even worse. If you think herding cows is messy, you should see the way email is schlopped all over the place.

The point is this. These technologies have become second nature vehicles for communication and expression. And blogging, podcasting, vlogging and the whole lot of recent “mecasting” technologies aren’t as integrated, aren’t as easy, aren’t as accessible as they need to be for them to be picked up and made as commonplace as the telephone (or cellphone, if you prefer). Point Four Percent of the population is nothing (that’s 23.6 million blogs as a percentage of the world population by the way). And yet another extension is not the answer. I don’t even know if another browser is. But we need something that works to solve this problem… or at least to make it better.

Yep, we’ve got a vision for how a browser with a different understanding of the web can help. We wouldn’t be building it otherwise. This is what drives us to make Flock the best possible, most easy-to-use and most useful tool it can be, because we’re experiencing all the same problems that everyone else is. Just coz us at Flock’re a tech savvy bunch doesn’t mean this stuff comes easy for us either. And for chrissake, it’s got to get easier, so much easier, if these conversations are going to include and be accessible to those who most need a voice.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

48 thoughts on “Revving a classic cliché”

  1. yes, yes, yes!

    i’d stop to have a conversation with the woman in the red dress too ; )

    when i think of the possibilities of flock (or whatever) i imagine the input/functional equivalent of the output of technorati’s tag results page. framed context needs an application(s) to create content to be framed.

    but then the socially-conscious person’s catch 22 appears… designing the ultimate app without it being a closed experience.

    how do we build a completely customizable and extensible experience within a app that employs particular functional design parameters? and how to make it simple and relevent to a bodega owner or school teacher?

    how, indeed…

  2. I don’t really know what flock is up to – but it sound interesting and is integrating all the things I find important on the web.

    the usability is the key here and not overdoing it.

    For some strange reason when Sean Coon ( in the comment above) says “bodega owners or school teachers” Im thinking of companies like Kodak and fujitsu who basically has putted up machines everywhere in Denmark ( in every mobile phone store ) where you can have your digital pictures developed in print..


    digital pictures in print.


    if they would have been smart they would have found out what people were actually doing with their digital pictures and how many pictures where actually being developed. Heck for me to develop a picture in print I have to give it to someone or I am putting it on my walls. Rest of them is not relevant due to “simple living”…

    anyway, keep focused and don’t overdue it to reach “Joe Normal” – it will come if your product is good enough, and you have good enough people to market the product

  3. There’s plenty of opportunity in making technology easier to live with but there’s still little effort going in to this area. It sounds like you’re trying to weave the web in to the fabric of our lives. That’s one step closer to ubiquitous technology. Good stuff! I’m looking forward to the paradigm shift, it should be fun.

  4. Firefox with duct tape. Love it. That’s me and a whole lot of people I know who can setup their own server, maintain a portfolio of extensions and write greasemonkey scripts. And we can passionately debate the virtues of vim vs emacs …

    … while the rest of the world is happy using Word. Most people don’t care about the wiring. Maybe they should. Strike that. The blogger in me just wants to blog. Get me to post, don’t bother me with the infrastructure.

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  6. reality? I mean Real Reality, not a top-layer of Us youngsters.

    Yust face it. The Real World is not yet ready for flock. In fact, a ver smal minority of the peolpe in the world is even online. Let alone ready for stuff like flickr and a huge, Vast mayority of the people cannot even browse the web, let alone learn how to participate in it. Flock will not help this.

    “This is 100,000 people walking down the concrete towards you, you, you’re walking the other way — who knows why? you just are” now this is a vision too. You are the one who participates in the web, the 10.000 walking owards you are those that have not got the knowledge, infrastructure of goods to participate. In reality this will be you standing a field with over a million people around you.

    So what is my point? two fold:
    * grow into it. trowing people online and expect them to imediately participate usin cutting edge tools is not a real good one. People must grow into it. ence the model of ‘start simple (firefox) and slowly extend it while you educate yourself.
    * Is Flock a real need. No I am not referring to ‘we should first solve hunger then the rest ‘ alikes. I am referring to the fact that simple and cheap applications liek firefox, neworks like civicspace and services like could be extended to meet the Real World Needs.

    So Am I saying that flock is stupid? Not at all. I am following it closely, for I think it ight prove to be the very start of a new ‘thing’. web 3.0 maybe.
    I am just saying that most o your mentioend points prove to me that Flocks is really only usefull for a very small niche of hipsters who are into-stuff. Certainly not for moms and dads. And definately no for newcomers to the web. What i mean is; its probably only usefull for 0.001% of the world population. No matter how easy you make the interface. No matter how well you integrate Yahoo services into it.

  7. It has become fashionable to attack anything bold in the Valley while at the same time saying nothing new is being done. I don’t profess to know alot about browsers, but I do know that true innovation comes from finding a BIG PROBLEM and being BOLD enough to take it on in a way that others have not. Then once you have done that or at least though through the idea, you have the option of developing a great business model. They are both requried, but one creates the opportunity for the other. You can have all the business model magic in the world, if you are not attacking an big problem and you don’t have a bold idea to address it, spending all the time talking about how you will make money is a waste. Everyone’s favorite poster child Google is a good example of this.

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  9. So does this rant include the vast, vast majority of the world who don’t have a blog, nor even know what a blog is? Are they the ones seeing the light as well?

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  11. While written with great helpings of brio, which I always admire, this posting clarified little for me and did nothing to persuade me that Flock is *actually useful*. Among many other objections, the people who use Delicious and know what tags are (heck, know what *tabs* are in a browser) are bleeding-edge types, most of them working in the technology or Web sectors in some way, and we’ve already got our browsers maxed out with everything we need.

    (If you really wanted to solve our problems, make us a version of Firefox that can handle many windows open with dozens of tabs each without hogging hundreds of megs of RAM and, inevitably, crashing.)

    You have a product that you keep telling us is interesting and useful that your actual potential users keep telling you is useless and a bore. If you think the audience for Delicious, tagging, and suchlike is going to grow so much that you won’t have to worry about early adopters, ask yourself why, five years later, all the non-IE browsers on Windows still have a puny market share. It’s going to be even harder to change people’s habits of simply reading Web sites occasionally, which is what most people online actually do, than it was to get them to switch browsers. And the people who switched *already switched*; they’re not gonna want to switch again.

    You are indeed providing a solution for a problem that exists only for people who’ve already solved it and nobody else.

  12. Hey,why did that idiot Joe Clark add my blog to the list of blogs that are saying flock sucks.For the record,i have never ever written a post in my blog that states that flock sucks.Infact,i have been blogging from flock and flock is my secondary browser.I am just waiting for the release of beta version to make that my default browser.So,Chris will you please edit that comment and remove my blog from it.

  13. oops,soory joe clark,i thought you posted that link to my blog.Sorry.And to chris,you guys are doing a great job.Keep it up.

  14. Bah. Why take the time to come here and degrade the effort. I just don’t understand why people who think that Flock is a waste of time spend any of their own time bashing it? They don’t bother providing constructive criticism of the product, but just criticize the effort.

    I must not be cool enough to be part of the “in” crowd that understands all of this blogging/tagging/linking/sharing technology. I do, however, have things I want to communicate on-line. I want to share my life with my family and friends. I want to discuss my politics with people who are interested. I want to interact with industry peers in my field. And I want to do this with the ease and effort I expend today when sending emails and surfing the web…(continued in next post).

  15. bummer…it won’t take the rest of my reply. Everytime I try to submit I get an error:

    Precondition Failed

    The precondition on the request for the URL /blog/wp-comments-post.php evaluated to false.

    At first I thought maybe my reply was too long, but it must not like something in the text of my reply?

  16. 15 years ago, I could have never imagined my parents using email or gopher or file transfer protocol. The technological barriers to these tools were just too great for them to overcome. Today, the technology has evolved to the point that my parents often use file transfer protocol(inside their browser) without even knowing it. They can use email to send the whole family their vacation photos and a tell us all about the delicious food on the cruise ship.

    Reading Chris’ “Flock Manifesto” above inspires me to imagine how all of these new web tools will evolve over the next few years. Seems to me that the Flock effort is all about encouraging and exploring the evolution of on-line discourse, discussion, and interaction. Today’s Flock browser is just a tool that facilitates that exploration. The people involved in Flock aren’t the only one’s who will be exploring in the years to come. And others may come up with better approaches. But by leading the charge on this, I think Flock’s investors hope that the Flock effort will put them on the cutting edge of the web’s next evolution. Once there, I’m betting they believe that they will be able to position themselves to get some solid return on their Flock investment. I want to encourage the efforts of the Flock community to keep developing new ideas that make it easier to communicate on-line. I look forward seeing the results of those efforts in the coming months and years.

  17. Sorry for all of the posts. Apparently, this “Leave a Reply” box doesn’t like the text “f t p” (without the spaces). All I did was change that to “file transfer protocol” and it allowed me to post.

  18. Firstly, I don’t know entirely what the Flock crew are up too. With that said, I think some of the comments on this blog are missing the point. The reason blogs, rss, tags, blah blah are not mainstream is because they’re for nerds. There, I said it. We (yes, you) handle abstract worlds far better than most people – and a lot of this stuff is quite abstract and complex. When you get these technologies to the point where my mum can use them, and can see value in using them, then you are talking mainstream. From what I have seen/read this is the direction Flock are heading..

    This requires more than just changing a few things here and there and adding more bells and whistles – E.g. FireFox extensions. It requires a fundemental shift in the way things are done, a shift in paradigm – E.g. A new “browser”.

  19. Chris Messina is more of a visionary than a pragmatist, and Flock is being built more like a piece of art than a commercial product. Flock is clearly inspired by Chris’ imagination and his observations of the way the web’s power users use tools like Flickr and, as opposed to the demands of the average web user. That’s not a criticism, but it takes a long time for these cutting edge innovations to be adopted by a significant number of people. Flock’s investors surely expect to see a return much sooner.

    It would be wonderful if the average web user used tags to organize their collections of stuff, wrote their own blog, and subscribed to lots of RSS feeds. Someday that will be true, but for very few people fit into this category, and those people would prefer to use Firefox and deal with flaky, duct-taped extensions than a polished, unified experience like Flock.

    So, what I’m saying is, Flock is wonderful, but ahead of its time. I think Chris knows this, but he cares more about showing off what a great artist and visionary he is, and so he won’t care when Flock’s investors bail out and the company folds. He’ll just keep working on his vision somewhere else.

    Keep up the great work, Chris 🙂

  20. I told you in paris (at the end of the LesBlogs conf.) that i liked Flock very much. It’sstill the case. Using it every day to post (except to podcast because of flash doesn’t working) I like the way you described what you’r doing. With all my support.

  21. This performancing extension is overrated in my book. I personally preferr the Flock blogging tool, which was completely seemless to configure & it works flawlessly with my wordpress blog. “Performancing” in Firefox, on the other hand, was a total waste of my time & energy.

    Firstly, it didn’t work at all. That should be enough to make the average person hate it. I am sure I could have gotten it working, but the whole idea was that it was suppose to be more seamless than the Flock blogging tool. That was not true.

    Secondly, it looks like dog poop.

    So, cheers to Flock & their blogging tool. Don’t get your spirits down! You guys are better!

  22. Don’t let people discourage you, Flock sounds interesting, for a lot of people. Just because a few people don’t understand, or think the product has become obsoleted before it’s out, who cares? It’s not true, so why worry? It’s easier to criticize than to create, and because of that there will always be more people criticizing.

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  24. Chris,

    It was really useful when we sat down, and had a chat about Flock in Paris. As I said then, my view (and still is) that I don’t like the Flock browser in it’s current form.

    But what opened my eyes and made me really warm to it is when you outlined the philosophy of it. That Flock was about the concepts and aspirations the project held, not the current build.

    I think your post has gone someway to outlining this for everyone, but for me you guys still don’t sell yourself well enough.

    Once I understood where you were coming from, my perspective changed. But like most bloggers/people I take things for what they are on face value.

    Stick at it. It can get really demoralizing when people constantly pick fault with your best efforts (I should know, I get enough flak for my own project). But keep at it, and keep your chins high — all of you flockers.

    All the best,


  25. I think the Flock critics are philosophizing a bit too much and seriously underestimating how important (and rare!) good product design is to the success of a software company. From what I’ve seen so far, Flock has a bunch of brilliant software designers and I suspect what they ultimately deliver will far outstrip extensions like Performancing.

  26. I fail to see how Flock applies here? “But no, see, that’s where Flock comes in.” Is it suppose to change the whole style of the web, create a new user experience? I thought it was just a browser…created to allow the user to visually see all that web mumbo jumbo stuff. I don’t see how flock can change the net..sorry.

  27. @Kyle: Well friend, that is because you fail to dream!

    Surely the way people thought about the web 10 years ago has become a little outmoded, no? Why shouldn’t the browser change to reflect the new realities that we are experiencing?

    Comment boxes and trackbacks can’t possibly be the best way for the browser to enable conversations on the web now, can they??

  28. Ofcourse comment boxes and trackbacks arn’t the best. But i don’t think changing the way we bookmark and making blogging a little bit easier will do much easier.

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