Social networking software

Wowd: A Faster, More Powerful Way to Explore Facebook

Facebook describes itself as "a social utility that helps people communicate more efficiently with their friends, family and coworkers." True enough, but there's one basic problem: The more friends, family, and coworkers you communicate with, the less efficient Facebook is. That's because it offers surprisingly few features for navigating your way through the surging sea of updates you get if you have more than a handful of connections. Once an item scrolls off the front page of your news feed, chances are pretty good that you'll never see it again. And interesting nuggets can get lost among stuff you couldn't care less about.

Enter Wowd, a real-time search engine that aims to help Facebook be better at living up to its own mission. It's introducing a new version with something it calls a "social discovery client for Facebook" today. I got a sneak peek before it opened the tool up to the masses.

You use Wowd in your browser, so it feels like a Web service. But it's really something increasingly rare: a piece of (free) downloadable software, available in versions for Windows, Macs, and Linux. Both the app and its data are stored on your computer rather than in the cloud. (More on that in a bit.)

As before, the Wowd software gives you a real-time Web search engine/directory and the ability to search your own Web history. But its most interesting features by far are its new tools for searching and browsing Facebook. This isn't a comprehensive alternative interface for the world's most popular social network: It doesn't let you read your inbox, add friends, upload photos, use applications, or do scads of other things you can do in Facebook itself. It's just about your current friends, the items they're posting, and your reaction to them. (You can "Like" items and comment on them from within Wowd, but if you try to do something such as view a photo album, it shuttles you off to Facebook.)

My favorite Wowd feature is one of its most straightforward: full-text search for Facebook items from your friends. It's like being able to Google their posts for keywords, and it's a great way to track down tidbits that might have scrolled away while you weren't paying attention.

For example, after I saw Dinner for Schmucks this afternoon, I used Wowd to see what my pals were saying about it:

Wowd's Facebook search only finds the items which Wowd has downloaded to your hard drive, which means that if you install the software right now, it'll just retrieve recent items. It'll be a more powerful tool if you leave Wowd running for a few months so it can capture, preserve, and index gazillions of items. Even so, it's a feature that could change how you use Facebook, unless you have only a handful of friends and follow their activities religiously.

Wowd also goes beyond Facebook by letting you create, filter, and search custom feeds. While Facebook itself lets you create groups of people such as "High School Buddies" and view a feed of their activity, Wowd allows you to build custom feeds that show only specific people and/or items that contain one or more keywords you specify. You can also search any of these feeds, or restrict them to specific types of content, such as updates, links, or photos.

Wowd aims to feel like an infinite stream of real-time content--new items appear automatically as they come in, and if you scroll backwards in a feed, you just keep going without having to click through any additional pages. You can also tell it to alert you via desktop notifications when new items arrive in a custom feed you've created.

Oh, and the software has a despamming feature which removes automated updates issued by games from your feed. I don't find such updates a major nuisance on Facebook itself, where I have 1675 friends--the spam is so radically outnumbered by more interesting stuff that I rarely see it. But you might find this useful if your Facebook feeds are overwhelmed by news of people building barns and tending to cattle. (Reading the dozens of FarmVille alerts that Wowd had automatically segregated for me was a mind-numbing experience.)

Wowd also has a feature I don't understand: A bulletin-board summary of your wall. None of the items on mine are clickable, one item consists of a list of words that may or may not be trending topics in my own updates, and there's a mysterious blank scrap of paper.

I encountered a few other oddities in the preview version of the software. For instance, I spotted at least one item in Facebook that seemed not to have made its way into Wowd, and the dialog you use to create custom feeds was sometimes weirdly sluggish. It also crashed once. (A Wowd representative said that the version I tried had bugs which had been squashed in time for today's general release.)

Assuming that the software has no nagging glitches, another question remains: Is the fact that it's an application rather than a purely Web-based service a pro or a con? I'm instinctively nervous that software that runs in the background, as Wowd does, might bog down my computer or hurt its reliability; I also fret about being responsible for ensuring that the local database gets backed up. But I haven't noticed any performance hit since I installed the program, and its settings include options for controlling how much bandwidth it grabs.

My biggest gripe is that the Wowd experience is a little disjointed. There's the background utility and the Web-based interface, and you'll spend plenty of time flipping in and out of Facebook itself. I'd like a way to get into Wowd within Facebook...and I certainly wouldn't squawk if Facebook rendered it superflous by adding similar features.

Wowd's creators liken the software to Twitter clients such as TweetDeck and point out the virtues of the app-based approach--most notably that it reduces privacy concerns by keeping all your data on your own computer rather than Wowd's servers. All in all, I buy it, and I'm finding the software a handy way to get a better handle on all the many things my Facebook pals are trying to tell me.

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