Getting to Know Snowl: Following Online Discussions

What does the next-generation feed-reader look like? Probably a lot like Snowl, a project out of Mozilla Labs that bills itself as a tool to follow and participate in online discussions. We take a look at early release of Snowl to see how it's coming along. It's not perfect yet, but the long term future for Snowl looks good.

If you’re tired of trying to drink from the firehose of Internet information, the Mozilla Labs folks may have the answer for you. An experimental add-on called Snowl is designed to help users follow and participate in online discussions.

We’ve all tried feed readers and aggregators and they’re OK if all you do is consume feeds and so forth. But if you want to participate in conversations, as many of us do with Twitter, Facebook, Identi.ca, and our own blogs, you need a tool that’s designed to address two-way communication. That’s what Snowl is being designed to do. So far, it’s not quite there, but let’s look at where it’s at right now.

Getting Started

Want to try out Snowl? Grab the extension from Mozilla Labs and take it for a whirl. I grabbed a pre 0.3 build that’s available from the Mozilla add-on site, and then grabbed the latest development build off the Snowl home page after the 0.3pre2 worked out pretty well.

So, Snowl is still very new. Note that you’ll need to acknowledge that Snowl is an “experimental” add-on when installing Snowl, which is an indicator that it’s not entirely polished and ready for prime time just yet.

Once you install Snowl, you can start it from Tools -> Snowl by selecting one of the views: List, Stream, and River. Then, to get started, you’ll need to subscribe to a few feeds and/or set up your Twitter account with Snowl. To set up Twitter, just go to Tools -> Snowl, and then select Subscribe. This will bring a dialog box that allows you to add a message source. Check Twitter and add your username and password, you should be good to go.

You can also add feeds using that dialog, or just click on the ever-popular RSS icon on any page that has a feed. Once Snowl is installed, Firefox will make Snowl an option for subscribing to feeds.

You’ll have to poke around a bit to find the view that’s right for you. The list view left me a bit cold, but the “stream” view in Snowl — which pushes the title of each feed or item entry into the sidebar — was much more usable. At least when using a small number of feeds plus my Twitter account.

Snowl allows you to import and export OPML, so I decided to throw my feed collection from Google Reader into Snowl. It didn’t choke, but it slowed down quite a bit. Once all the feeds had updated, though, Firefox and Snowl resumed normal speed. Thank goodness, because the immediate slowdown was insane.

After my feeds were imported and updated, reading my feeds was snappy as ever. Overall, Snowl makes for a no-frills feed reader.

When I installed Snowl to my regular Firefox profile, Firefox promptly crashed after two minutes. And pretty regularly thereafter. I’m not entirely sure why, but after installing Snowl into a blank profile, it worked just fine — which leads me to suspect that Snowl and another extension were not playing well.

As a reminder, if you want to play with experimental Firefox add-ons, you can start Firefox without any add-ons using firefox -ProfileManager --no-remote. This will even allow you to run a separate instance of Firefox, so you can test Snowl while still having access (in another instance) to your usual add-ons.

What’s Ahead?

Right now, Snowl is mostly one-way communication. You can Tweet from Snowl, but you can’t respond to Tweets out of Snowl or re-tweet. There’s a lot left to graft on before Snowl becomes fully useful in online conversations.

But that doesn’t mean Snowl isn’t headed in that direction. A quick glance at the roadmap on the Mozilla Wiki shows that the plan is to add support for all kinds of Twittering fun, support for email, tiny URLs, create “person centric views” to allow you to track all the feeds related to people (stalkerific!) and much more.

Snowl isn’t there yet, but if the project achieves most of the goals on the roadmap, it’s going to be very worthwhile to follow. I was hoping the project was a little more advanced when I decided to start tinkering with it this week, but I’m satisfied that it’s going in a good direction. Maybe a little more attention will drive a few developers over to help the project forward.

Right now, Snowl isn’t a “must-have” extension, but it is worth keeping an eye on. The concept is good, and if the project picks up some additional functionality (such as being a full-fledged Twitter client) it could really make online conversations much easier to follow and participate in.

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