Thing is, with each new tool you start to use, along with the added benefits comes an added overhead: each tool gives you a new place you have to go - another inbox you need to check. At some point all these social tools start to become overwhelming. What can we do about that?
Aggregation is a movement in new technologies that aims to solve this problem by pulling many different sources of information into as few screens as possible, and where possible, only one screen.
I've already talked about one particular social aggregator in past posts: TweetDeck. Although primarily a Twitter client, TweetDeck also allows you to interact, to a limited extent, with your Facebook, Google Buzz and Foursquare accounts. Of course to get the full range of features for any of those, you'll still need to go to the main website, but TweetDeck does a pretty good job of covering the day-to-day basics.
But managing feeds and inboxes is only half of the problem. What about contacts?
In each service you'll likely have a separate list of contacts (or "friends" or "followers" or whatever that particular service calls them). Although most of them will give you an opportunity to import your contacts from the other services manually, they generally don't provide you with a unified view of all of them.
If you know someone pretty well, odds are you're friends with them in Facebook, connected to them in LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter and Foursquare, share your stuff with them in Google Latitude and Buzz and chat to them in Google Talk. So that's one person with five different profiles spread all over the Internet (I said "five" not "seven" because most Google products, including Talk, Latitude and Buzz, use a shared contact list stored in your Gmail Contacts).
Wouldn't it make more sense if you could pool all those accounts together and have just one profile for that person?
Well, as it happens, there are some aggregation tools that let you do exactly that.
Inbox Side Panels
If you use Gmail and/or Microsoft Outlook, there are a couple of tools that you can use to achieve this: Rapportive for Gmail and Xobni for Outlook.
In addition, Xobni searches your Outlook history and displays panels showing a list of who else that person knows, the last few email conversations you've both participated in, meetings you've both attended or have scheduled, and even the last few files you've sent back and forth as email attachments,
If you opt for the paid version of Xobni, it gives you even more cool features!
|Gist dashboard view|
To set up your Gist account, you'll need to give it access to your other contact lists: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Gmail and so on. Gist then imports all those lists and keeps them updated. If you have a lot of contacts, it may take you a while to set it up properly: sorting through duplicate entries, differentiating between people and companies and that sort of thing.
Once you've got it worked out, Gist will give you a unified view of your contacts' activity across the different social media platforms, as well as communication histories, meetings, blog posts and news articles about them. Gist also uses an algorithm to calculate a "relevance" score for each person and company, figuring out how important they are to you, and thereby allowing you to filter the feed view based on how busy you are - if you're very busy, you can see only the most important people, if you're having a slow day you can see everyone.
Gist also has browser plug-ins and an Outlook add-in like Rapportive and Xobni, as well as mobile apps that let you monitor your dashboard on the go.
(There's even a trick you can use to get Gist to update your Google Contacts list, making that more relevant in and of itself).
That's all fine and good if you're sitting at your computer, but what if you're on the run? You've arranged a meetup with a business acquaintance on Twitter, but you're running late, and she doesn't follow you on Google Latitude. Now you need to phone her and let her know, but you've never asked for her phone number and she's not logged into Google Talk. What do you do?
Most smartphones allow you to call someone directly from the Facebook or Gist app on the device (assuming your friend has put their number on their profile). Android devices take it a step further though.
|Linked contact on Android|
The ultimate goal of a user interface design is to make the computer effectively invisible - to make it so you need to do as little work as possible in order to get the information you need out of the system. Social aggregation tools are working towards that goal, and they're getting better at it every day.
Until the various social networking sites figure out how to update each other with their respective contact lists, at least we have these tools to help us do it for them.