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Facebook has what marketing and business types call "network externalities," and what normal people call "My least tech-savvy relative uses it." In other words, even if it's technically inferior to other blogging or social networking tools in many ways, you end up using it because everyone else does. A social network without anyone in it is useless, or, if you prefer, "Friendster." This creates a great niche for a startup to occupy: Writing tools that make Facebook easier and more comfortable to use. Wowd (free) promises to be one such tool.
Wowd is an application that runs on your local hardware, but uses your browser (Internet Explorer 6 or better, or Firefox 2 or better) as its UI. It logs into your Facebook account and serves as a front end to it. You can create groups of friends and separate them into feeds, so you can flip between business associates, relatives, and actual friends. You can create feeds based on keyword searches to see which of your friends are talking about "Star Wars," for example. The best part is that it does a very good job of filtering out game spam--you know, the "Fred has sent you 500 kumquats" messages.
Unfortunately, Wowd is still in a bit of an early state. It doesn't save the sort order of a feed, for example, and it sometimes is slow to update relative to Facebook itself, even if you manually refresh it. It preserves your personal Web history locally, so you can find Web sites again and search for text stored in the page, not just the URL ("What page was it that had the kumquat recipe?"), but getting this feature to turn on was problematic for me; eventually, it started working, but I have no idea what I did. There's a Web search tab that also provides custom feeds and a button to share a link with Facebook, but I could not find a way to sort the search results (as a "news feed," I want the most recent journalistic articles or links first, usually, but this isn't how they display on Wowd) and it's not entirely clear where they come from--the Wowd Web site says it mines "your Facebook news feed," but there are plenty of sites there I have never Liked, linked to, or otherwise nominated via Facebook, so I am a bit confused.
At times, I get a warning message that "The Facebook API limit has been reached", which means that Wowd keeps retrying what it was doing until it gets through. The company acknowledges this issue and is looking into it.
Installing Wowd was surprisingly problematic for me, requiring some tweaking of my Java settings to get it to work correctly, and several e-mails to technical support. This is likely to not be an issue for users who leave their Java settings at defaults, but it does need to be mentioned.
My overall opinion is that there's a lot of potential for a Facebook front end that does more with the data stream (and can mash it up with other data as needed), but Wowd needs a few more features and UI polish to really stand out. In much the same way that HTML and browsers put a user-friendly layer on the chaotic protocols underlying the Internet, there's now a real need for programs that manage, organize, and improve our interaction with the many different sites we visit or participate in. With some time to evolve, Wowd could be in the forefront of this next phase. Because it's free and all data is stored locally (no risk of storing information in a 'cloud' that disappears or gets sold to the Russian Mafia down the road), I recommend giving it a good look-over. Despite the issues mentioned above, in the week or so I've been testing it, I've found I use Wowd much more regularly and much more easily than I use the actual Facebook Web page.
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