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Can Facebook Out-Twitter Twitter?

by Jeffrey Mann  |  April 28, 2009  |  2 Comments

It’s odd to see a powerhouse like Facebook scrambling to become more like Twitter, a relative upstart with no visible means of revenue. The reported rejected acquisition bid could play a role in a “If you can’t buy them, copy them” way. But clearly, this is what is happening.

First Facebook changed its user interface to a adopt more Twitter-like activity streams. clip_image001Although this style of user interface is arguably more like Friendfeed than Twitter, they all seem to be converging on a similar model built on real time feeds of what friends and contacts are doing right this very instant. Who cares what anyone was doing or thinking about an hour ago anyway, right?

image The second move came this week when Facebook opened up their APIs to third parties. This is a far more welcome, meaningful and risky move for Facebook. One of the reasons Twitter has caught on is that it is easy to build applications on top of the Twitter service using rich interfaces. These applications range from the sublime to the ridiculous, providing mobile access, different styles of clients, monitoring tools, analysis and aggregation.

For most heavy Twitter users, these third party tools define their Twitter experience. Twitter doesn’t really seem to mind, since it has maintained a pretty utilitarian UI on it hasn’t changed much except for the addition of a (fairly well-hidden) search engine and a few tweaks seen recently like showing replies when the @symbol is anywhere in the tweet instead of only at the beginning; useful, but hardly revolutionary. There isn’t much need to go there except to change profile information, which doesn’t happen all that often.

Unlike Facebook and most other sites, Twitter doesn’t need to bring people to their site in order to make money by pushing advertising at them. For reasons discussed in an earlier post, I believe Twitter is concentrating on building volume and loyalty, with monetization to come later. Of course. “later” cannot become “never;” eventually they need to bring in some money. For the moment, that doesn’t seem to be a priority, however.

The threat to advertising revenue is why this is such a risky move for Facebook. When anyone can build a flashy AIR-based client to follow their friends activities, or gadgets that pull selected data from the Facebook stream, then there is less reason for users to actually visit, which is when the cash register jingles at Facebook HQ. So far, Facebook has done everything it could to keep users coming to its site rather than sending its data to someone else’s. I think that Facebook is counting on three factors in favour of opening up:

  1. More activity means more visitors
    If the third party apps bring in more punters, than eventually they will visit with its full range of functionality. What they lose in visits they gain through more visitors.
  2. Other revenue sources will open up
    Advertising is not the only source of money for social media. Expect to see more emphasis on sponsorship, partner fees, value-added services, and joint ventures.
  3. If they don’t, Facebook could become irrelevant.
    Right now, they are at the top of the social media heap, recently having passed Myspace, which in turn replaced Friendster as the place to be. Losing some advertising revenue is better than being replaced.

I believe that last reason is the real clincher. The first two are throws of the dice; new money could replace or even surpass what they could miss. The risk of becoming the Last Big Thing in social media rather than staying the current big thing is more like flirting with disaster. A forward-leaning strategy encouraging more partnerships and activity certainly makes more sense in this space than building walls, so I think this is fundamentally a good move on Facebook’s part. It can be scary to put a painfully developed revenue stream at risk, but in the social media market, trying to protect it by erecting barriers will eventually prove disastrous.

By the way, I’m sure that the role of Twitter and Facebook will come up often at Gartner’s PCC conference in Orlando in June.

Category: consumerization  facebook  microblogging  social-software  twitter-vendors  

Tags: business-model  facebook  openness  twitter  

Jeffrey Mann
Research VP
20 years with Gartner and META Group
30 years IT industry

Jeffrey Mann is a Research VP at Gartner, covering cloud office, collaboration and social software.

Thoughts on Can Facebook Out-Twitter Twitter?

  1. I believe Facebook at the ‘flip of a switch’ can position itself to be a strong competitor to Twitter.

    The power of a users’ status update on Facebook is strong — it’s not only been amplified in terms of prominence and attention on the website redesign, but more importantly it has socially been habitual by users to be updated frequently.

    If you think about the fact that Twitter is now mainstream and people not entrenched into the tech industry (like my sister and my Starbucks barista) are now accepting this concept of real-time status updates wherever they go (a.k.a microblogging). Right now, this socialization or concept of receiving real-time updates is being facilitated by Twitter, it’s a “learning curve” for the masses (much like FB Newsfeed was when it was first introduced).

    That said, I believe that if Facebook waits for Twitter to go through it’s life cycle of popularity — when ready they could activate the sending of status updates to Facebook users’ phones. Right now, users are required to complete the complex task of editing your ‘mobile’ settings and manually adding specifically whom you’d like to receive status updates directly to your phone.

    Imagine if when you added a new friend you were prompted with “Would you like to receive mobile status updates from this person?” Or, what if, in the Newsfeed, next to users’ status updates, an icon appeared that instantly added them to your preferred mobile updates list when clicked?

    More on my blog post here:

  2. […] Can Facebook Out-Twitter Twitter? – view page – cached ← Non-Blog Post on Twitter, @aplusk, etc. Declaring Things Dead Is So Dead — From the page […]

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