Thing Labs, the company behind social media stream reader Brizzly, has been acquired by AOL, multiple sources have now confirmed. The startup is led by Jason Shellen, who managed the creation of the category-killing Google Reader years ago, and Ben Darnell, who was a key engineer in creating Reader.

It was just one of three major acquisitions by AOL announced today, including video site 5 Mins and of course market-leading tech blog TechCrunch. AOL has long been the home of some of the most popular social products (AIM) and destinations (Engadget) online. The addition of the expert stream team from Thing Labs is a bold move that will help the big media company compete in the era of Facebook and the News Feed.

Shellen, who was also key in building Blogger.com, is a well-liked man of many experiments. His primary product Brizzly is like a web-based Twitter client that includes streams of friend updates from Facebook and, as of last night, Foursquare. It probably most directly competes with Seesmic.

Team Brizzly will be put to work on AOL's social stream reading product, Lifestream. That product has been widely praised from a technical level, but has failed to gain substantial market traction, with a reported 5 million users throughout the last year.

The Tragedy of the Feeds

That's less than 1% as many people as Facebook sees every month, but the Facebook Newsfeed has changed the way millions of people now experience the internet. When Shellen and Darnell lead the creation of Google Reader long ago (it will turn 5 years old next month) the team must have hoped that the power of RSS feeds would transform the lives of everyday people as it had begun to for super-early-adopters using other feed readers like NetNewsWire (Mac, born 2002) and FeedDemon (Windows).

Other RSS readers proliferated, then the market consolidated and then it collapsed. Google Reader was left as the primary RSS reader standing, all other major products synced to it, and only so many people used it anyway.

A relatively accessible technology offered the world on a platter, only the freshest updates from sites and searches around the web, delivered into one handy centralized place: and the users said "meh." As a journalist who lives and breathes RSS through a variety of different products, the fate of the grown-up feed reader market breaks my heart.
A relatively accessible technology offered the world on a platter, only the freshest updates from sites and searches around the web, delivered into one handy centralized place: and the users said "meh."

As a journalist who lives and breathes RSS through a variety of different products, the fate of the grown-up feed reader market breaks my heart.

None the less, many people began reading syndicated news update subscriptions instead through Twitter and in some cases, Facebook. Where three tiny letters (Really Simple Syndication) apparently scared hundreds of millions of people away from the power of feed reading, the simpler social interfaces welcomed them with open arms.

Shellen and Darnell began working on products to fit this new era of feed or stream reading at Thing Labs. There's something about the Brizzly product, in the context of RSS's giant flop, that feels condescending. It says: dear world, you were too dumb to handle a slightly different interface and a lot of messages that made you feel like you had unread emails - how about we give you a cuddly cartoon bear instead? Maybe I'm just bitter, though. I continue to build incredible value out of feeds, but I'd be able to enjoy far more value if the rest of the world understood their beauty.

Now the men behind the only lasting product from Feed Era Stage 1 will be brought in-house at AOL to try and help that company challenge Facebook, so dominant already in the early (social) Feed Era Stage 2.

The acquisition was long rumored but first reported today by marketing blogger Louis Gray, then confirmed definitively by industry news blog Paid Content. See also coverage from the now-AOL network blog TechCrunch, which apparently first reported on the rumors.

The official release from AOL is here.