A first look at Second Brain

by Shane Perris on Wednesday, 13 February, 2008

in reviews

The brain child of Norwegian entrepreneur Lars Teigen, Second Brain bills itself as a “social content aggregator that helps people collect, organize, search and share content from multiple online services in a single library“.  In short, Second Brain is yet another “lifestream” service in a growing market populated with the likes of aggregators and micro-blogs such as Jaiku, Pownce and Tumblr, yet at the same time is nothing like these services.  Confused much?  To add to the confusion, this is the third iteration of Second Brain (to my knowledge anyway) as the service has refined its focus and changed direction since I first became aware of it via Read/Write Web back in May 2007.  Second Brain is managed in Norway, has a development team based in Poland and is apparently built on a .NET platform.

It looks like Second Brain is pitching itself as the one-stop shop for everything an individual throws up online from del.icio.us bookmaks, Google Docs documents, blog posts, Flickr photos, You Tube videos and so on through the miracle that is XML/RSS and the public APIs for these services.  Second Brain is more than just a raw social feed aggregator.  It also provides the user with a way of organising content from these different services, giving each person the ability to play their own personal librarian.

So, how well does Second Brain do?

Getting inside

This iteration of Second Brain is still in “test pilot” mode and is not yet available to the broader public.  However, if you’re absolutely gagging for a test run, you can leave a comment at this post on the Second Brain blog. Otherwise, leave a comment here and I’ll see if I can get some invites as well.

Once inside, Second Brain presents a simple stream of services you have added some far as well as latest the latest updates of any other Second Brainer you might be following (it looks like every person follows by default the founder and CEO of Second Brain, Lars Teigen).  I had added a del.icio.us feed in one of the previous iterations and there it sat, dutifully updating my del.icio.us activity.

Creating your stream

Adding content is a breeze.  After clicking on the big, round 2.0 “Add content” button in the top right hand corner, a pretty box pops down, AJAX-style, presenting the list of services that Second Brain currently supports.  It looks like Second Brain is only supporting services with specific APIs at the moment, and it is not possible to input any old RSS feed, unlike Jaiku for example. This does fit in with the concept of an organisation service as Second Brain does more than import text and notifications – it also imports thumbnails and allows users to organise content by type.  I understand that supported services are still to be finalised and more could be added if demand is sufficient.  Services may also be dropped, as has happened in the past (a previous iteration supported the online storage service OmniDrive, but since that service now appears to be floating face down in the dead pool with an API that no longer works, the Second Brain team informed me that they have dropped support for the foreseeable future).

Organising your information

The main point of importing all this content is to try and re-arrange it into a coherent form.  Second Brain makes this a trivial task.  Simply create a new collection in your profile area on the left hand side.  Once the collection has been created, it is a simple matter to mark the checkboxes next to individual items in the stream and select “Add to collection…” from the drop down box.  The collection is automatically populated and if so desired, publicly available.

For an example what a collection looks from outside the walled garden, travel to here to see one in the wild.

The downsides

The first thing I noticed when I logged in is that Second Brain is dog slow.  At times it felt like I had brought its server to its knees.  This is particularly noticeable when you try and add content (the most AJAX-heavy part of the site).  I raised this with the Second Brain team who acknowledged that this was a known problem and that the development team are hoping to push out a fix in the next couple of days.  The other thing missing is the ability to embed your collections on external websites, something that was a feature of a previous iteration.  The Second Brain guys have said that they are working on it and it’s a matter of finding the best way to display the collections using the new framework of the current version.  This doesn’t surprise me as Second Brain has undergone a lot of changes in the way it displays the information that it pulls in.  Second Brain is also rather indiscriminate in the data it imports.  For Flickr import, it only allows you to choose if you want to import private as well as public photos while YouTube also lets you import favourites and playlists on top of uploads.  Greater granularity would be useful, such as allowing a user to only import Flickr photos with particular semantic tags.  One final point is that in aggregating all this data, it is a sobering reminder of just how much information we put up about ourselves and how easy it is to pull together into one place.

Final thoughts

The lifestream space is hotting up and Second Brain is just one contender on the market.  The site is competent and solid and does a good job of pulling together information from the small number of services it does support.  Be careful what information you aggregate as it tends to pull it all in.  If you have hundreds of YouTube videos, thousands of Flickr photos and tens of thousands of del.icio.us bookmarks, be prepared to wait a long time for the aggregation to be completed.  The sluggish feel of the site also extends to organising information into collections.  If you become a Second Brain Test Pilot, you might want to pick and choose which services to aggregate until the planned speed optimisations are implemented.

Second Brain is a service to watch and provided it can remain focused on what it wants to do, it shouldn’t take long before it occupies a healthy slice of the lifestream pie.

Update: apologies to Lars for the incorrect spelling of his last name (now fixed). This is what happens when you type too quickly and then use cut and paste. Mea Culpa.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lars Teigen February 14, 2008 at 1:33

Thank for the thorough and detailed review on Second Brain. I certainly appreciate your kind words about our service, and also made a note about your remarks on speed, granularity in imports among other things. Like you say, we are working on improving this in one of the very next iterations.

We are at an early stage, being in private beta still, but we are on a big mission. We have lots of exiting new features and improvements coming in the next few months.

If any of your readers are interested in an invite, feel free to forward them the codes that I sent you.

Founder and CEO

2 shane February 14, 2008 at 8:30

Thanks Lars.

It really is an intriguing service and it has been fascinating to watch it change from the early version through to Reloaded through to how it looks now. I’ll be watching with interest as it develops.

Oh, and I’ve fixed the spelling of your name. Sorry about that. It’s a little embarrassing but at least it’s right now.

3 Jennifer February 14, 2008 at 12:18

Good posting!

For all online backup and storage related info, I recommend this website:


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