Facebook and Twitter – the status wars

I’ve decided to give Twitter another go (you can see it on the sidebar there if you’re reading this in the blog). What inspired me was a couple of posts – from David Warlick who relates how Twitter was used at a conference and Ewan McIntosh who asks for the Twitter details of people attending the Scottish Learning Festival, so they can create a page of reflections on the conference.

It seemed to me that maybe having a Twitter identity was a professional requirement, a component of the essential modern identity an educational technologist should construct. But my problem is I’ve tried before and not established it as a habit sufficiently. One of the reasons was that I didn’t know anyone else using it, so I’ve added a few friends this time round. But in the meantime I’ve become a Facebook user, and established a friends network in there.

Facebook status updates performs much the same function of course, and now that it can be tracked as an RSS feed, you might think why bother with Twitter? There is a subtle difference about Twitter, personified by its openness. You can restrict your notifications, but the default is open, and thus you can post your updates onto your blog or onto a conference web site. Because your status in Facebook is shared only with your friends this makes it more private.

There is thus a subtle difference between the type of update you post to Twitter and to Facebook, and the relationship you have with other Twitter followers and Facebook friends. I’m probably more protective about my Facebook friend access than my Twitter one. And this is what Facebook has built itself on, establishing a trusted and private network.

So, why is this important? It’s because I am unlikely to bother to update both my Facebook and my Twitter status. And if we take my point about the difference between the two types of status then there is an asymmetrical relationship between them. The flow is from Twitter to Facebook, not vice versa, because I wouldn’t want my Facebook status to be publicly displayed, but I would be happy for my Facebook status to be updated from Twitter.

But the flow doesn’t go this way, because of Facebook’s walled garden approach. So you can, using a nifty app called fbtwit, get your Facebook status to be displayed in Twitter. And you can import Twitter into Facebook, but it is another app, it doesn’t update your status.

This was a challenge of course, so a couple of different programmers cracked it using PHP, including Blake Brannon and Kerry Buckley. It turns out Facebook weren’t very happy with this and demanded that they remove the code or face legal action, and even worse, have their Facebook accounts closed! The Facebook engineer claims that

"we just can’t let people automate against our site outside of the platform; it’s a slippery slope."

This is not the real reason – Facebook could create a Twitter update if they wanted. And when you analyse it, this is quite revealing about the Facebook business model. The key issue for Facebook is that status updating is the jewel in their crown. It is the key to stickability for their site. If they allow people to update it via Twitter then the motivation to visit Facebook is lessened. Why is this significant? Because even if Facebook aren’t sure what their business model is, they know it relies on stickability – on having lots of people in their site. 

But isn’t stickability dead, you may ask. Isn’t it all very web 1.0 and Jakob Nielsen? This is true, and in general syndication is the key now, as Twitter embodies. But, ironically, in a world of mass syndication, this makes the riches for winning in stickability much higher. There will be fewer stickability sites, so when you achieve one you get a lot of users. In the same way the long tail flattens the retail topography, but leaves a few very high peaks – the mega blockbusters. So while sales flatten out across many titles the big titles get bigger, such as (God help us) The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, etc.

Facebook are playing for big stakes then. And they know Twitter could damage their business model so it’s in their interest to make Twitter available inside FB, but not, never, ever to encroach upon their main pull factor – status updates.

Which is another reason why I’m giving Twitter a second chance. The winner of these status wars will go a long way to shaping the future direction of technology, and as much as I love Facebook, one should give the open approach a fighting chance. Having said that – what am I going to do about my dual update dilemma?

7 Comments

  1. Hi, Martin – this got me thinking. After a couple of months on FB, I’ve become a bit bored with all the fairly trivial stuff that goes on in there – the invites to be a pirate or a vampire, the slightly pointless compare-yourself-with-your-friends type of application, etc etc.
    I tend (I hope politely) to ignore these whenever they come my way.
    But! I keep going back into FB, and you are right: it’s for the updates – and also increasingly for those who are starting to use the FB messaging in place of email. I still prefer ‘real’ email though (for the moment).
    Twitter is sparse, austere almost, in comparison with FB – I quite like that.
    As you say, it will be interesting to watch the contest, and, of course, to hedge my bets in the meantime.

  2. To pick up another post, I wonder if the trivial stuff allows users to establish different levels/types of friendship? I should think it’s very rare for somebody to have a set of friends who all take part in exactly the same subset of possible social activities, on- or offline.
    But being interested in what a friend is doing at the moment (status updates)is almost axiomatic of friendship, isn’t it?

  3. Oh, & I don’t use Twitter because I still think of it primarily as something you do from your mobile phone, & I don’t get out much 😉
    If I’m going to socialise via the web, I may as well do it from a one-stop site, & that’s what Facebook offers me.

  4. The twitter application in FaceBook now has the option to update your status field. You’ve probably noted this, but if you hadn’t ..
    It has the annoying habbit of saying Eric is Twittering: Followed by your Tweet, but hey, can’t win them all ..

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