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Why No One Owns the Social Stream (But Facebook Does More Than Twitter)

December 4, 2009

After reading about a deeper integration between Google’s Friend Connect and Twitter, John Battelle (@JohnBattelle) noted that Google should face some fundamental truths about its social efforts:

If Google really wants to get social, why doesn’t it do what Yahoo’s already done, and admit Facebook pretty much owns the social graph? After all, Facebook has already admitted Google owns search. And it’s using Google to leverage its own platform, in many ways. Google might do the same…

Then I read this response to Battelle’s post by my friend Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd).

John seems to be missing the tectonic alignment here. Google is thinking that Twitter might be the future of social streaming (please, would everyone stop saying ‘social graph’ — it doesn’t add anything to the discussion), not Facebook.

I agree with Stowe that “social graph” is a stunningly annoying phrase, but I wholeheartedly disagree with this notion (espoused by many in the social media world) that Twitter is the future of social streaming. What Twitter could this be? The one that everyone from teenagers to grandparents are on all over the world? Well, in broad swaths, that certainly isn’t the reality for Twitter, but it is becoming more so for Facebook despite enjoying far less hype in 2009.

While Twitter has grown and has millions of users — and it enjoys some mainstream use attention in matters big (Iranian elections) and small/useless (baloon boy) — it still carries a narrow subset of people that’s a largely insular community. Tech. PR/marketing. Journalists. Celebrities. Any mainstream news Twitter receives is because of the influence those facets of society have on information consumption, but it still hasn’t translated into Joe Web User adoption. Even when they do join, they leave, making Twitter a haven for the New Media Elite.

I don’t buy the idea that Twitter will be like the invention of the phone, cell phone or computer, where this narrow set of first adopters paves the way and then a floodgate of regular people follow. That time has passed. It’s actually the masses that have (ironically for a social technology) revolted from Twitter because it’s been crammed down their throats in the media and on the Web, and regular people have balked at it. They are happy to say “I don’t get it, and I don’t want to get it.” Facebook happened more organically in dorm rooms because people saw a need for it. People immediately find their friends there, and that matters.

Moreover, Twitter is steadily turning into a social bookmarking service. The fact that we in the Twitter community spend hours, days and weeks debating link structures and the format of retweets and hashtags is evidence of this. It’s a textual based medium that links to deeper content on other sites. There are deep, intellectual exchanges I have on Twitter that I value and now can’t imagine living without, but I’m not sure that would be something that makes it part of other people’s daily diet of information.

Facebook, by contrast, has richer information in profiles and puts more dynamic content into the stream that doesn’t require as much clicking and redirecting from the site. It also provides the utility of a status message.

For Facebook, the one issue could be that it’s best suited for narrow networks, rather than broad ones (like Twitter, which is so public), in which case Stowe’s contention that Google has more interest in Twitter is spot on.

But right now, Twitter is headed for the few rather than the many. As a technology, I think regular folks are going to find more use for microblogging at work than they do as consumers, due to better privacy and because it can derive them value right away, but I obviously have a vested interest in that, so I’ll end here.

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