Flock, a Web browser with loads and loads of media sharing and social features baked inside it, announced today that it is shutting down. Flock went out with a sigh and the news of its closure has been greeted with a shrug.
Back in the old days, when Flock was born, things were very different. Five or six years ago when Flock was launching (it was a long, slow, hyped-up process), people loved it. Tech bloggers in particular loved it. It was, as PaidContent founder Rafat Ali said, "a new browser with a lot of geek-love." Top bloggers are so concerned these days with saving face by constraining their enthusiasm that I thought it would be fun to look back at what some tech stars said about Flock back then. Their early reviews are like a time machine that offers a ride into a simpler, perhaps happier time in the tech blogosphere. I miss that time and thought you'd enjoy reading some highlights.
The best early review of Flock came from Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch. His write-up (Flock: Social Browsing is Cool), three months after launching TechCrunch and when it was just him writing by himself, is full of misspellings, over-the-top enthusiasm about what seem like the simplest things today and a long list of links off-site to competing blogs. You don't see any of that on TechCrunch today. I miss that.
Arrington called Flock "a functional browser with excellent features (including firefox features like tabbed browsing, etc.)."
"This is pure magic. We've tested most blogging tools out there...I have to say I think Flock blows them all away. I'm dying to show a screen shot, but Flock has asked it's [sic] beta testers not to (so ignore the very, very small screen shot above). To show this right now would be pushing the limits of their trust, so I won't.
"But it rocks. ...It has functionality for editing posts (even posts not created with Flock), quick toggle between preview and viewing the actual code, and, the best feature in my opinion, the ability to simply drag flickr photos direclty [sic] into the post and manipulate them. They also allow quick and easy technorati tagging. Wow. I mean, really, wow. This stuff is not trivial to build. The ajax funtionality [sic] is stunning."
We can chuckle at a review like that today but some of Flock's technology was, no doubt, not trivial to build. More importantly, an HTML editor in a content management system that published to the Web was a revolutionary technology just six years ago! That's how drastically things have changed.
Matt Marshall, founder of Venturebeat, was similarly wowed by something that seems pretty basic today. Maybe Flock was just ahead of its time? Or maybe the other browsers on the market were just woefully slow-moving? His favorite feature in Flock, Marshall notes: "Pulling RSS feeds from interesting sites you visit is a matter of clicking on a button that Flock shows you in the address bar -- presto, the feed is showing in your browser."
Our own founder Richard MacManus got in on the game as well, posting an audio interview with Flock co-founder Geoffrey Arone to Odeo, the podcasting service that would later give birth to Twitter.
"What interests me most about Flock these days," Richard wrote, "is its goal to become one of the big browsers. Geoffrey said they're planning to go-live (out of beta) in October this year and he is confident that Flock can become a big player in what is a very tough market."
Richard's post concluded with the sentence, "Geoffrey said that my questions were the best he's had in any interview about Flock (which is a nice compliment!)."
Poor Richard didn't know he was just at the beginning of years' worth of startups saying nice things like that to us - after they made sure to show our competitors, TechCrunch, their tech first.
"I've often thought that Flock was far too geeky," Cashmore said. "It's only useful if you're an early adopter and a heavy user of Flickr, del.icio.us and blogging tools. But that's no longer the case: this move takes Flock mainstream, reaching out to Photobucket's massive user base. Smart move."
It's true - some of the leading voices on the Web today thought five years ago that having your friends' photos dance around in the corner of your browser was something that was of interest primarily to power users of the social Web. Five years later, we assume just the opposite I think - who today would call Flock, or its follow-on effort Rockmelt "too geeky?"
People say you know things have reached mainstream consciousness when The Wall St. Journal's Walt Mossberg writes about them. Two years after the above tech bloggers ranted and raved about Flock, its features and its high-profile funding, Mossberg wrote about Flock that he'd "been testing a little-known Web browser."
Mossberg, back in 2008, was just trying to come to grips with tabbed browsers and the frenetic sense of obligation they imposed on him. "Even with the advent of tabbed browsing, which allows you to keep multiple Web pages open in the same window, Web multitasking can be a pain," he wrote. "You have to constantly click back and forth among tabs if they contain fast-changing material you check often, like the status of your friends in social-networking services, or updates to news feeds.
"Trying to share information with people on your Web-based networks can introduce another layer of digital jujitsu. It can be awkward to snag a photo or a snippet of text from one Web site and send it to a friend in a social network on another, or post it to your own blog."
Apparently Mossberg got over all that and hasn't spent the last three years flipping back and forth from one tab to another to see if there have been any updates, or struggling to copy text from one website and post it on a blog in another tab. Otherwise he wouldn't have gotten all the things done that he has since then.
What Does it Mean?!
My point is this. Looking back at the birth of Flock is amusing because so many people were so wide-eyed about things that seem so simple today. Maybe those things are simple now because people got so excited about them back then, though. Maybe that adorably naive enthusiasm, sung from the tops of growing blog-mountains, helped move the industry forward quickly. The five or six years Flock has been around might feel like a long time to those of us who think in 140 characters at a time - but it's really not long at all!
We were wrong when we said that Flock might capture the world's imagination. It might be a little embarrassing to have been so wrong. I've tried to find something gushy I wrote about Flock and I can't - but I write super-gushy things about freaky new technologies every day, and often I am wrong about their staying power.
Dave Winer says that every generation of tech press moves from the outside to the inside, growing co-opted and comfortable with the leading vendors, giving up critical thought and concern for the real interests of users in exchange for getting intimate access to the big companies in the market. Maybe that's true. But I think there's something more human and hurt-puppy going on here than just that all our souls have rotted.
I think the rapid acceleration of technology, history and cultural change, the exhausting pressure to report on that and the rough and tumble experience that being a new media leading voice can burn people out. You're probably never going to read Michael Arrington write about something new again with words like "This is pure magic...Wow. I mean really, wow."
Some people will say that such unbridled enthusiasm was irresponsible. That it was dangerous. That it was fuel for a bubble economy wherein grandmothers would throw away their life savings on the IPOs of Twitter clients, only to be homeless in months. I'll let other people issue those dour, if important (!), warnings.
I want the old days of tech blogging back. Back before everyone was so jaded and conservative about what they get excited about. People play it safer today and I think it may be to the detriment of progress, innovation and users. It's a lot less fun, too.