Web Goes Retro With Firef.ly

For some of us old fogies who grew up using bulletin boards and forums on closed online services, online chat has always held a special allure. Remember, it was chatting that proved to be the killer application for AOL. Yet somehow the chat phenomenon didn’t quite translate as well on the open web, mostly because the implementations were kludgy and the software was too slow.

Still, instant messaging and lately Twitter-styled short messages have only become more popular. At the other extreme, we have Google trying to build immersive communication environments with the launch of Lively. Between those two new communication methodologies, however, there lies a third way.

For the past couple of days I have been playing around with a new web service called Firef.ly, which adds chat and avatars to any site on the web. It’s instantaneous like Twitter, yet is localized to a web page and allows for customization through the use of avatars.

The service, which was developed by Billy Chasen and is likely to go into beta sometime today, is the creation of NY-based Betaworks, who describe it as a real-time social messaging system. I know of many people that have used it and found it to be a better service than what’s offered by some of its rivals like Yaplet.

By adding a tiny bit of Javascript code, any site can become chat enabled. (You need a Flash plugin installed in your browser as well.) If you want to chat about, say, the L.A. earthquake, you go to a page, start typing, and your comments show up on a layer that seems to float above the page. Others can respond in real time.

People conversing are seen on screen either as avatars or a simple mouse pointers. The service also provides a timeline of the conversation, allowing you to navigate through the entire thread. That’s possible because the company stores these conversation threads on Amazon’s S3 service. (You can download and try it here.)

The comments can be posted on a web site; they can also be sent to your Twitter account and be broadcasted to your Twitter stream. This integration with Twitter could result in Flash Mobs versions of a conversation in which people converge on a story and talk about it amongst themselves before moving onto something else.

I like the idea, but I’m not sure how this translates into a business. Perhaps the company can charge publishers for its service. The Huffington Post is one of 300 web publishers that have been participating in a private alpha test of Firef.ly in the last two months, the company says.