Twitter and Facebook: not the same thing

This week, talks between Facebook and Twitter about a takeover of the microblogging service fell through. And good thing too.

Despite the economic crunch – Facebook might have completed its latest financing round successfully before things started to bite, but it’s still not breaking even and has to keep half an eye on where the next load of money is coming from – Facebook had been offering an eyewatering $15bn evaluation on Twitter, but still the Twitter investors shied away from the deal.

And it’s a good thing, too, because despite superficial similarities between the two services – Twitter can be described ultra-simplistically as Facebook’s status notice feature broken out onto its own rather basic microsite – the two are actually quite fundamentally different and it’s hard to think of a merger that wouldn’t wreck the unique selling points of one or the other.

Why would Facebook even consider paying so much money for a piece of functionality that they already have in their own line-up (Twitter’s “chatter” side can be more-or-less duplicated in Facebook with Wall-to-Wall posts and with the new Instant Chat function)? If this were normal business then the answer would be “to buy up and kill off a competitor” – which is possible here, but $15bn is a hefty price tag for a search and destroy mission so it’s rather unlikely.

No, in Web 2.0 the reason for this merger would be to get your hands on the community members. The technology is nothing: Twitter’s basic software is available as an open source platform, and any half decent web programmer could approximate it in half a day. But getting people to use it is another thing. In social networks, it’s all about who your users are – new users will go to where their friends and the “action” is, and at the moment that’s definitely Twitter.

Even though Twitter can boast only around six million active users at the moment, compared with Facebook’s 120 million, those users tend to be (a) influential – take a look at the list of the Web’s 20 most visible individuals in the UK and you’ll find they’re mostly Twitter users, even Stephen Fry – and also very active and passionate. They will do half a dozen updates on even a slow day, while whereas those 120 million ‘active’ Facebook users may only do a couple of updates to their entire profile in a week.

Moreover, as leading tech geek blogger Robert Scoble pointed out yesterday – on Twitter – over 60%+ his friends’ updates come from Twitter via third party apps that allow Twitter messages to be synchronised with the Facebook status, or to appear on the user’s Facebook “news wall”.

Personally I’ve never understood why people synchronise their Facebook and Twitter statuses. It might look sensible at first glance – your status is your status is your status after all – but to me they have quite different uses. I use my Facebook status to give a broad, overarching ‘theme’ for my current situation – “Andrew is cold this morning!”, “Andrew liked Bond, but didn’t LOVE Bond,” that sort of thing. Whereas Twitter is first and foremost a microblogging tool with bits of stray news that I pick up, replies to other people, the occasional pimping of my blog or Flickr contributions, and general chatter – the sort of things you might do in an average chat with a group of friends or colleagues around the water cooler. While Facebook statuses fit in perfectly well into that Twitter feed, all this chatter looks decidedly odd when picked up as a Facebook status update.

If Facebook had acquired Twitter, what could it have done – other than continue to run the two services completely separately as now? The answer is very little, without destroying the unique appeal of Twitter by lumping it in with the increasingly bloated feature set of Facebook and risk having it drown – during which time the Twitter users would have jumped ship to something leaner, meaner and cleaner.

It’s that simplicity that is enabling the content (the users and their content updates) to shine through on Twitter, and is leading to increasing coverage in the mainstream media – especially this week, where many of us found about about the rapidly emerging situation in Mumbai almost a full hour before BBC and CNN started issuing email and website updates about it. As a result, there have been articles in CNN, TechCrunch and the Guardian to name but three focusing on how social media led the way on this breaking news story, as well as blog opinion pieces asking how anyone can seriously doubt that is a true and proper source of journalism in the 21st century. The impact of the ‘live’ coverage was such that a rumour quickly went around – since unsubstantiated – that the Indian government had appealed for Twitter users to cease coverage of the crisis in case it was helping the terrororists in their assault. Of course, that’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of inaccuracy and distortion in these early reports as well.

Even in less dramatic stories, Twitter seems to be hijacking the news agenda an punching disproportionately above its weight in mere user numbers. For example, Stephen Fry’s three brief “Tweets” about the Blackberry Storm have led to the BBC blog asking in all seriousness “Can Stephen Fry kill a gadget?

It’s hard to think how Facebook could adjust to provide the same sort of outlet in its line-up, without it getting swamped in the rest of Facebook’s features, or why they would want to mess with their “keep up with your friends” model to such an extent in the first place. Instead, the best way forward would surely seem to be for the two to come to a strategic arrangement, an alliance that allows them to work together in those key areas of overlap.

For example, Facebook’s member Wall has an application tailored to allow easy imports of updates of the member’s activity on other sites including Flickr, Delicious, Google Reader, Digg, YouTube and others. It’s a really great little feature, but there’s one obvious omission: no Twitter import. That’s left to third party applications, which Facebook has historically gone out of its way to impede, disable and cripple – a sign of the spat between the two companies and perhaps the insecurity that the giant Facebook feels about the little upstart microblogging site.

It would be great to see the two social networking services come up with a common application that allows reliable, precision importing of Tweets into the Facebook environment; and similarly allows Facebook users easy access to port information such as shared links over to Twitter. That way, everyone might be happy.

After all, isn’t social media/Web 2.0 supposed to be about engaging, working together and sharing? Time the social networking sites lived the dream as well as just relying on it to bring in new users.


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