Facebook versus Twitter

Facebook is the past, Twitter is the future.

Or phrased less starkly, Facebook reconnects while Twitter connects.

All of my friends on Facebook are exactly that: friends from real life, or at the very least, people whom I actually know. Colleagues, students, family members, former classmates, childhood friends. A significant chunk of those Facebook friends are ghosts from the past, people whom I haven’t seen, spoken to, or even thought of in years, maybe decades. Facebook has reconnected me — albeit in a very superficial sense — to these people. I’d even estimate that friends from my past now outnumber current friends and acquaintances on Facebook. Given the exponential algorithm driving the growth of social networks (like the old Faberge shampoo commercial, you tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on), it’s not surprising that these reconnections to the past began with a single high school friend, last seen at our graduation in 1989. The ripple effect from this single act of “friending” led to dozens of acquaintances from my hometown.

The reciprocal nature of “friendship” on Facebook reinforces the site’s re-networking aspect. You can only befriend people who have befriended you. Facebook’s insistence upon reciprocity appealed to me at first, ensuring that nobody could lurk on my profile without likewise surrendering their own profile to me. Yet this feature, that I found so comforting when I first dipped into social networking, I now find to be confining, perhaps even the greatest limitation of Facebook. Reciprocity guarantees a closed platform, a fixed loop that cannot expand beyond itself.

This stands in contrast to Twitter, where reciprocity is not required. You can follow someone without them following you. The effect of this asymmetric system is that many of the people I follow I have never met. And I may never. Likewise many of my followers are absolute strangers. Yet many of them share interests with me: pedagogy, literature, digital humanities, even music (at least two of my followers added me after I wrote about the band Shearwater). So this is what I mean when I say Twitter connects.

There is another crucial difference between Facebook and Twitter that associates the former with the past and the latter with the future. Even with its new layout and feed, Facebook does not truly operate in real time. Facebook is still something like a bulletin board. My status updates, therefore, tend to be sly comments or key links that I’ve thought about and pondered and that I want to remain “active” for a day or two. Constant status updates would quickly get lost in the clutter of irritating quiz results, meaningless gift hugs, and holiday Peeps that populate the Facebook news feed.

Twitter conversely offers a more stream-of-consciousness aesthetic. If I immediately follow one tweet with another, I’m not so concerned that the first is going to get lost, as my followers are seeing a feed of my tweets in whatever application they’re using. It is also a matter of one or two clicks (depending on your Twitter client) to see my Twitter posts in aggregate, something much more difficult to achieve in Facebook.

So, to be systematic about the differences between Facebook and Twitter, I present this chart:

Facebook Twitter
past future
reconnect connect
static dynamic
closed open
pond stream

The last distinction — pond versus stream — evokes the dominant ecology of each social network. And I for one would rather be in the flowing stream than the stagnant pond.

4 thoughts on “Facebook versus Twitter

  1. Let me play Devil’s advocate.

    [Goes to play the pinball game "Devil's Advocate," then returns.]

    1) I’m totally with you on the different topologies of “friending” and “following” — asymmetry turns out to actually be VERY powerful. BUT Facebook actually DOES allow some more open/asymmetrical connections — which turn out to be equally powerful.

    For instance, in addition to browsing friends, I can also browse networks. Some people choose to make their full or partial profiles available to everyone in their network, while others don’t. Back in the day when FB was Ivy-only, there was a powerful sense of this “safety in the sandbox” – virtually everybody’s profile was open. But configurability actually does give you some of the same asymmetries of access.

    The other three key ways in which you come into “open” contact with people you’ve never met are through comments (the “friends-of-friends” degree), tags fan sites, and applications. Comments and tags are more serendipitous than subject-based hashtags, because you don’t know what it is you’re looking for; fan sites allow for the same “broadcast” model of connection, allowing for people to gather around shared interests rather than common acquaintance. This is something FB could definitely develop better, but I remember when Orkut started, the fan sites/discussion groups within it were a positive revelation. I started blogging because of Orkut.

    All of these various daisy-chained connections actually make Facebook a much more open place to share information and to connect with strangers than it first appears. These connections all happen within structures that arguably reduce the pure play that Twitter offers, but they also encode them with contextual information that actually help make them more intelligible. (I really do think that both Twitter and FB primarily offer intelligibility – a way to tune into the noise of the net to hear positive signals.)

    2) Facebook is genuinely multimedia, while Twitter is only accidentally so. This is part of the benefit of FB’s cannibalization of other successful networking sites; it’s a little bit Twitter, a little bit Flickr, a little bit iTunes…

    I actually think more of Twitter’s future lies with services like TwitPic — particularly as more folks can create multimedia content on their portable devices and send it on the fly, overcoming some of the SMS-limits it started with. Facebook has figured this out — Twitter is working on it.

    3) Twitter is intensely temporal, while Facebook is time-agnostic. You could argue this one either way — the ephemerality of Twitter is, again, counterintuitively, part of its power. But we’ve been on this path before, with television, radio, the newspaper, and even blogging, all of which were powerful “streams” in their own right before the digital revolution converted all of them into strange frozen rivers, still and moving at the same time.

    It’s strange, then, that the broadcasting mode of the “future” would be moving against the current of timeshifting and placeshifting sweeping up all other media. Now, I’ve actually spent some time looking at old Twitter posts — and they’re always strangely revealing. (“So that’s what we were talking about in November.”) I think Twitter actually needs to think about leveraging the power of its own archives, using hashtags or some other method to help navigate that terrain.

  2. Tim, thanks for your devilish comments. I should say that my observations are based on my own use of Facebook, which I’m sure is not reflective of the entire community of users. There are generational differences as well as idiosyncrasies related to my own antagonistic stance towards Facebook.

    I see what you mean about browsing networks on Facebook, but I’d still stick with my pond metaphor. Each network on Facebook is simply another pond, and while it’s possible to portage from one pond to the next, each one is still a closed system.

    The proliferation of hashtags on Twitter (a technique imported from IRC channels, though I imagine most Twitterers have never used IRC) is a great example of the kind of end-user bricolage that Facebook simply doesn’t allow. I see hashtags as hyperspace buttons, allowing users to instantly jump from one stream to the next in a way that allows greater discovery, flexibility, and openness than networks or profile links on Facebook.

    I’m not so concerned about media support on Twitter. But I do think the lack of embedded multimedia has afforded Twitter a nimbleness that few other social networks can match. This makes Twitter ideal for certain just-in-time uses (and of course, the photo-sharing features of Facebook make that platform ideal for other kinds of uses that are less time-sensitive). All of which makes me say again that Facebook is about the past, while Twitter is about the future.

  3. This is why it’s a “devil’s advocate” position, rather than one that gets my full-throated endorsement. Because while I really do think these are all relevant variables, I DO think that they could break either way.

    This also effectively makes your thesis more powerful — Twitter is the future, not least because it goes against the stream of all of these things that we THOUGHT were the future.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Mark. I don’t use twitter, but it strikes me that another way in which Facebook represents “the past” is its preservation of certain traditional ideas of subjectivity. It’s true that this is a performed subjectivity, but nonetheless, the idea that I connect with people I “know,” first and foremost, means that my first point of connection with them is some personal history.

    I take this to be the main point of facebook, but also one of its central problems, at least for me. The format assumes that we want to be tuned into what our “friends” think, believe, eat, do with their children, etc.. But I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of reconnecting with someone from grade school and finding that our news feeds flooded with things we don’t care to know about him or her. We can, of course, opt to turn off those contributions, but that only proves my point (and yours, I think)–the primary point of connection on facebook is between individuals, or bodies, really. A technology like twitter, on the other hand (or even the old-fashioned discussion board) is based on shared interests, ideas, and networks of potential information exchange.

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