Facebook and Twitter. Pick one.
For years, this has been the unspoken ultimatum between users of the two most popular social networking sites. And for a long time, the two sites were different enough to warrant the demand. For the sake of setting the tone, indulge me in a quick comparison of the two.
At the time of writing, Facebook has around 1.11 billion users. It’s a digital entity which focuses on real world connections. As a rule, people only befriend people they know, and within the Facebook culture it’s considered creepy if you start stalking people. Can’t think why.
Twitter, on the other hand has 500 million users, and stalking is considered good practice here. Stalking is the only approach you can take on a site which focuses on online networking and digital communities.
Despite their differences, if Twitter and Facebook don’t constantly adapt to meet the changing needs of their users, then they will both eventually meet the same digital demise. It might seem unlikely right now, but it seemed unlikely of the Yellow Pages once, too. Oh, and MySpace. Remember Myspace? Nope? I didn’t think so.
Merging for survival
So, MySpace. Bebo. They’ve all but disappeared, dwindling in popularity at around the 30 million user mark (might sound a lot, but it’s really not). The reason this happened is simple: they didn’t keep up. They believed that they had the social thing nailed, and ignored the changing needs of their users. Oops.
But Facebook and Twitter are doing alright, aren’t they?
Well yes they are.
But despite their proliferation, we know they’re trying as hard (if not harder) to keep up with the needs of their users as any of the lesser known sites out there.
But oftentimes, like some sort of digital Frankenstein’s monster, they borrow features from one another, tart them up as something different and sew them in. But these features don’t always transplant well. Not well at all.
Hadn’t noticed? Well that’s because Facebook and Twitter didn’t get where they are today without being pretty good at covering their tracks. But you’ve got me now, so listen and learn.
Sharing vs. Retweeting
Initially a function on Facebook, ‘sharing’ was met with crippling ambivalence, like a useless appendix. While early Twitter users could quote another user’s tweet with the “RT @username” convention, or include a weblink in their tweet, the introduction of the official retweet function (Twitter’s equivalent of the ‘share’ button), made sharing stuff as easy as, er… clicking a button.
Unlike on Facebook, Twitter users tend to have thousands rather than hundreds of connections, so if the right person retweets the right post to the right people, you get new followers.
For example, @gaystarnews recently retweeted a pun I made about Cher to over 20,000 followers, 8 of which immediately followed me, with another 15 over the course of that day.
Facebook? The average user only has a few hundred friends. So if I share something, I might get a few comments but that’s where the buck stops. While the introduction of Facebook pages has gone some way to improving the use of the share function, organ rejection is just a step away…
Like vs. Favourite
Unlike sharing, the ‘like’ button gained popularity fast on Facebook. Taking the simplicity of the defunct ‘poke’ button (aimless, therefore useless), a ‘like’ became an endorsement of somebody’s post. The more likes a post has, the more likely – excuse the pun – a user is to click on it. Then Twitter decided to copy Facebook by introducing the favourite button.
Great though it is as a bookmarking function, Twitter could never have predicted that for many users, the favourite button would become synonymous with the retweet function, rendering it as surplus as a third leg.
Instead of being forced to share something they like (thereby spreading information, encouraging participation and engagement and the overall growth of Twitter) the favourite button has given Twitter users the option to simply flag a post instead of retweeting it. The lesson for Twitter here? Because something works on Facebook, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work on Twitter.
Hashtag vs. …well, Hashtag
Oh the contentious hashtag. Facebook recently embedded the hashtag, popularised by Twitter. On Twitter, the hashtag allows users to find trending topics and all the tweets posted by other users who have used the same tag. It’s an excellent way of filtering posts from the 500 million-odd users you have access to. Adopting this functionality is a predictable move by Facebook… but without some serious emergency surgery, it’s not going to stake.
Why not? Because without a massive cultural shift in the way Facebook members use the site, people won’t be able to access half of what is being posted.
On a site where you have all your information in one place and no control over friends posting and tagging pictures of you, people tend to value their privacy, and if they’re privacy settings are on ‘panic room’ then it doesn’t matter what they’re hashtagging.
The unchanging difference – public versus private
Here’s the clincher: Facebook is about sharing all of your personal information with relatively few people; photos… interests… friends lists, everything. On the flipside, Twitter is all about sharing very little personal information with pretty much anybody.
When Twitter was born, 140 characters of restrictive bliss meant that people could no longer bore you to death with their incessant drivel on Facebook… However, while the user interface has changed very little, when you take a moment to consider everything now tucked away behind it… Twitpics, Instagram, Vine, blogs, and any number of other plugins and apps; it becomes very obvious that the gap between Twitter and Facebook is not as wide as they would have you believe.
They are both bound by their own success. Twitter now faces the challenge of making users share more personal information, while Facebook is trying to encourage its users to share their personal information with more people.
The big secret: it’s in our hands
If Twitter and Facebook should learn anything from MySpace and Bebo, it’s that the only way to survive is to swallow other entities as they evolve – but they need to swallow the right ones. Like it or not, these sites are now so hooked into the lives of their users – us – that they no longer have the ultimate say in where they’re going. We do. You do. That’s right, you.
If, like me, you detest hashtags on Facebook and loathe favourites on Twitter, then this is my request to you: don’t lay back and take it. Make a fuss. Ultimately, it’s us as users who do the decision-making. And that’s what Twitter and Facebook are trying to keep from us; that we decide which limbs to lop off and stitch on to another social site. Try as they might to take control, they will never succeed.
Though they walk out, confidently presenting new features as their own, in the hope that we will blindly accept them, it is in fact only when we do blindly accept them that they stick. We’re the real geniuses of social media; the crackpot professors, sitting in our turret laboratory testing out new features and seeing what works. It’s what we do and say that shapes where they go: we gave them life and we can take it away. And personally, I think that’s a pretty powerful thought.
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