It is no secret that Facebook has Twitter envy. The number one social networking site is not content to win over rival MySpace. It is not satisfied being far ahead of Google on the social web. Facebook now has Twitter firmly in its crosshairs.
True, Twitter traffic has gone through the roof. True, Twitter is the new killer app, the new cool kid on the block. And yes, even Oprah now loves Twitter. But does this mean Facebook should be worried? Well, maybe yes, but likely no, because Twitter and Facebook are two very different services.
The Coolest Kid on the Block
It is always hard not to be the cool one anymore. Whether you’re a movie star or an NBA player, going from #1 to #2 is hard. It is even harder not to be near the top at all. Aging is pretty hard and something we all have to deal with. But change is inevitable, part of the cycle of life. The new comes in and replaces the old.
The history of the software industry is a classic illustration of this kind of transition. IBM was replaced by Microsoft, which reigned for decades. Its strong grip was taken over by Google, and for a while Google was cool. With the rise of the social web, things have changed again. MySpace, Facebook, and now Twitter are taking over in people’s minds as the newest, coolest kids on the block.
But IBM is still around and doing well. So is Microsoft, which now looks more like IBM. And, of course, Google, despite not being so cool anymore, is still king of the web. Not so cool, perhaps, but certainly very solid and with enviable revenue.
So maybe Facebook should not feel the need to be so cool and look like Twitter.
Why Did Facebook Take Off to Begin With?
Facebook emerged out of Harvard and was initially a network for college students. It started out as a simple way to keep in touch, to see what was going on around campus. By the time its doors opened to everyone, Facebook had a few things going for it:
– Unlike MySpace, it had clean and elegant profiles.
– It made sharing pictures easy.
– It made sending private messages to friends easy.
– It made posting public messages on walls easy.
In short, Facebook solved basic problems of communication between friends. And it solved them very well.
But it felt compelled to continue evolving. Perhaps it felt threatened by Google’s foray into the social space. Perhaps it was enticed by the prospect of being bigger than Google. Or perhaps it was the $15 billion valuation offered by Microsoft that set the bar too high. Whatever it was, it kept rolling out features, including the Facebook platform and Beacon, which aimed to make the web revolve around it.
Facebook blew past MySpace and managed to keep Google at bay. It firmly won the race for the social web. But now it has begun a brand new race, this one against Twitter.
Twitter and Facebook Are Just Different
The thing is, though, this race makes no sense. Facebook and Twitter are simply two different services that need to co-exist on today’s web. The only thing they have in common is that their users have a limited number of hours in the day in which to socialize.
At its core, Facebook is about closed sharing between a group of friends. That is why my sister, one of Facebook’s first users, felt so compelled to use it, not because of apps or Beacon or tabs within tabs within tabs. It was simply about photos and messages on walls between friends.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter has not added new features. It has stuck to its core product: connecting people via short messages. And unlike Facebook, Twitter has allowed uni-directional connections: if you want to follow someone without him or her following you, you can. Twitter was never about sharing between friends in the first place, but rather about sharing news. And if you look at Twitter today, it has clearly changed the way the world consumes news.
So, Facebook is chasing a rival that is playing, in Gartner-speak, in a different Magic Quadrant. And that does not make sense because even if it refocuses on streams, Facebook at its core is about friends, not news. Even if it had public pages for celebrities that everyone could follow, Facebook would still not be about news. It’s just different.
Focus on What You Do Best
Chasing Twitter could be costly. Facebook likely won’t overtake Twitter and what it has built up today. Twitter has won that race already. But if Facebook continues to spend too much time trying to re-position itself, its core business (i.e. connecting friends) is in danger of becoming vulnerable.
Clearly, MySpace, with its brand new management, is not wasting time. AOL is cooking up some interesting new stuff itself in the social networking space. And Google may just decide to make Chrome more social than other browsers.
So, it seems that Facebook’s best path to preserving its strength is to not waste energy chasing Twitter. Instead, it should return to its roots and core strength: being the #1 social networking site that makes it easy to network with your friends.