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Stanford friendships fed success of social networking innovator FriendFeed

Jim Norris (BS 2002, MS 2004 CS), Bret Taylor (BS 2002, MS 2003 CS), Sanjeev Singh (BS 1996 CS) and Paul Buchheit (Case Western Reserve University)

How did three Stanford computer science alumni and a friend make a huge mark on the world of social networking? With social networking, of course. The story of the founding of FriendFeed, an influential social information sharing site acquired in August for a rumored $47.5 million by Facebook, is a tale of investing in relationships.

Eleven years ago, Jim Norris (BS 2002, MS 2004 CS) and Bret Taylor (BS 2002, MS 2003 CS) arrived on the Stanford campus with vastly different interests. Norris came to school focused intently on a long-time interest in computers. From his childhood days in the Napa Valley tinkering with code on an Apple IIc computer, he knew he enjoyed making technology work and the Stanford classes he enjoyed the most were hard-core, operating systems and compiler courses taught by Professors Mendel Rosenblum and Monica Lam.

Taylor, on the other hand, expected to spend his days in the History Corner of the Main Quad, preparing to be a lawyer. But like many Stanford undergraduates do every year, he took what he figured would be an elective, CS106X, "Programming Abstractions," with lecturer Jerry Cain (a full-time employee of Facebook) and that hooked him on computer science. He had done some Web design a high school student at Acalanes High School in the East Bay city of Lafayette, but mostly because it was preferable to his prior job of changing oil and cleaning bathrooms at a "76" gas station.

By sophomore year, Norris and Taylor had found so many common interests that they started taking classes and doing projects together. Midway through his co-term year, Taylor went to work for Google. Norris joined him there six months later.

At the then fast-growing search startup, they helped create now-familiar products such as Google Maps. Meanwhile, Sanjeev Singh (BS 1996 CS) and Paul Buchheit (who studied at Case Western Reserve University), were working to create Gmail.

Like Norris, Singh cut his teeth programming an Apple II. Singh grew up in Singapore but what brought him to the Bay Area for college was the inspiration he felt in high school when he read Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach by now Stanford President John Hennessy and leading UC Berkeley computer science professor David Patterson. Cal didn't accept Singh but Stanford did. At Stanford he was indeed able to indulge his interest in computer architecture, taking an electrical engineering class taught by Professor Kunle Olukotun that he recalled as being "crazy awesome."

Over time at Google, the two pairs of programmers--Norris and Taylor and Buchheit and Singh -- learned of each other through mutual friends, and would run into each other during lunchtime in one of the famous cafeterias of the Googleplex. They began to watch each other's work and a mutual respect grew.

The bond between the two talented duos became strong enough that in 2007, when Taylor and Norris left Google to become entrepreneurs in residence at the Palo Alto venture capital firm Benchmark Capital, they all kept in regular touch. At weekly dinners, Buchheit and Singh offered Taylor and Norris critiques and advice on their ideas.

Creating FriendFeed

At first, Taylor and Norris were focused on building a data storage technology. As a side project, they created some software for sharing Web pages they found interesting during their research.

That sharing engine became FriendFeed, which allows users to create and comment on real-time streams information about what they and their friends are doing online. It integrates a wide variety of sites, such as the video rental site Netflix and the text-messaging based microblogging service Twitter.

Taylor explains that the appeal of FriendFeed and social information sharing in general, is both intellectual and emotional. He starts by pointing to Google's stated mission to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The technical approach is to create a massive index and then to mine it with algorithms.

"That's really useful when you know what you are looking for and want to find it," Taylor says. "But the problem I have become fiercely passionate about was the opposite: information discovery.

"For any given event, such as the Sonya Sotomayor confirmation hearings, there are about 2,000 blog posts analyzing that with widely varying levels of quality and political perspectives. How do you find the one or two you'd actually want to read? The answer to that problem isn't just algorithmic. To know that Jim liked this article is infinitely more powerful than knowing that some fancy algorithm liked it."

Norris quips, "The converse works too: If you see that certain people like something, you may be less likely to like it."

But online content sharing is also about the simple pleasure of shared experience, which Taylor says was slipping away as people fanned out into online media.

"Back in the day we'd watch Seinfeld and get together and talk about it the next day," he says. "But with YouTube and blogs there was no shared experience because with so much stuff out there nobody watched the same things. And so by posting things on FriendFeed and Facebook you recreate that shared experience, even for some obscure video that only you and 200 other people in the world have watched."

As they saw the content sharing system begin to emerge from Taylor and Norris' homemade PCs at Benchmark, Singh and Buchheit became enamored with its potential. Singh had even worked back in 1998 at a startup called Third Voice that developed a system to allow groups of people to collectively annotate Web sites. The company didn't succeed, however, largely because Web content at the time was too sparse and had too little traffic.

Inspired by the idea and the timing of FriendFeed, Singh and Buchheit each invested $2 million, along with $1 million from Benchmark, in February 2008. The four men all became co-founders and built the company over the next 18 months into a venture of a dozen employees and more than a million unique site visitors every month.

A new chapter at Facebook

It didn't take long before the site got the attention of social networking giant Facebook. In April, writer Leena Rao of the prominent blog TechCrunch credited FriendFeed for originating many of the features popularized on bigger social networking sites: "They were the first to add comments to status updates, the first to bring in third-party feeds and the first to realize the value of search. They also experimented with real-time streams way before the others."

The acquisition by Facebook in August 2009 gave FriendFeed's employees the chance to create technology for an audience of 250 million users. The FriendFeed founders say they are excited about bringing new ideas to a user community that, if it were a country, would be the fourth most populated on Earth.

In so doing, four friends could produce even more software that helps sustain and enhance billions of friendships around the world. What aspect of your Stanford experience has endured the most for you since leaving school?

  • Jim Norris - The people. Having the opportunity to be around a very smart group of people and to learn things from the people you work with was a new and valuable experience. It's the kind of thing you don't get everywhere. There was a good variety of perspectives, too. So there were a lot of opportunities to learn from other people, especially in the group projects that Stanford seems to emphasize.
  • Sanjeev Singh - I think the thing that I learned most from Stanford was an appreciation of other disciplines both inside and outside computer science. Before I went to Stanford I thought databases were the most boring things in the world. But underneath the covers there are many interesting problems. But I also learned to appreciate things like Greek mythology and history.
  • Bret Taylor - A lot of my memories at Stanford are about tinkering. Everyone there in computer science was always trying stuff out. There was sort of an inventor mentality. There were always random projects going on. The most important part of creating things is actually creating things. So many people think of ideas but they never take the time to try them out. I think that that's something that I've carried with me.