(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
closed, openness, privacy

facebook, twitter

Why Facebook Can't Become Twitter: Its Closed Nature

from the what-happened-to-openness dept

There's been plenty of talk about how Facebook has been trying to morph more into being like Twitter, to avoid being "last year's model" when it comes to the "social networking hype focus." Last week, the company got some news for supposedly "opening up" newsfeeds for outside developers to build into their apps, with many people saying that this is how the site becomes more "Twitter-like." The NY Times had a big writeup over the weekend, talking about what a crazy idea it is that Facebook would just let anyone come in and "take" its content and put into other apps -- even though, there are tons of services that do exactly that and have found it to be quite useful. Except, it appears that Facebook isn't quite as open as the press coverage and press releases would lead you to believe -- and a big part of it is the foundation on which Facebook is built. One developer (full disclosure: the guy in question is a close friend/former housemate) recently created a rather useful app that turned the Facebook feed into an RSS file. A review of the app at Read Write Web discussed how incredibly useful the app is, listing out five things it makes possible that were impossible before -- partly in making the app more Twitter-like. This is great. Hurray for openness making things possible, right?

Well, not exactly. It seems that Facebook is hamstrung due to its own setup. Because the initial purpose of Facebook was for private updates between friends, making that data public is a huge no-no, and so it took just a couple days before the useful app was shut down, noting that it could violate user privacy. Since Facebook has been a punching bag over privacy issues for a while, this is no surprise. If you had a friend's status updates in your news feed, and he or she had set them to be viewable only by certain people, converting them into a public RSS feed does have potential privacy implications.

That makes sense from a privacy standpoint, but it shows why it will be quite difficult for Facebook to "become Twitter." Its entire setup is in many ways the anti-Twitter. Twitter was designed, on purpose, to be extremely public and open, and that's how people use it. Facebook, however, with its fine-grained privacy controls and focus on personal communication only between people who agree to communicate with each other is pretty limited in how much it can open up. The more it tries to become like Twitter, the more its own setup gets in the way. The app to make your Facebook news feed into an RSS feed is quite useful... but it can't work with Facebook's privacy settings the way things are set up today. Of course, some might point out that an individual could just as easily take their own Facebook news feed and republish it publicly using the time-tested method known as "cut-and-paste." Realistically speaking, creating an RSS feed is really not all that different than just cutting and pasting the info directly. The issue isn't so much privacy policies, as the user's individual decision over what to do with the info, though, Facebook would probably note that the automated push-button nature of the Newsfeed RSS app is the problem.

Either way, beyond just demonstrating the general differences between Twitter and Facebook, this also shows how legacy decisions, which make all the sense in the world at one point in a service's development, can significantly hinder certain changes later on.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Ryan, May 4th, 2009 @ 2:27pm

    Does Facebook Even Want to be Twitter?

    This post seems to infer that an imitation of Twitter is desirable for Facebook. This may be the case, but it seems to ignore any discussion that each has its own niche. Facebook's growth has not been doing badly by any stretch of the imagination.

    I, for one, have used Facebook extensively, but I haven't gone beyond checking out a few celebrity Twitter feeds once a few months ago. It seems retarded to me. There may be a use for public announcements, but it seems that most meaningful communications would entain some degree of privacy, thus making exclusivity settings advantageous. I know that many of my friends have indicated they felt the same; many have never even been to Twitter's site, nor have any desire to do so.

    There is a reason why there is criticism everytime Facebook makes a change at odds with privacy--because many of its users want that privacy. They don't necessarily want Twitter's openness. Coke may have a larger market share than Pepsi, but if the latter made its taste more like the former, it will mostly just turn off its own fans.

    There may be a larger market opportunity of users for Twitter's design than Facebook's, and there may be more money to be had in the former, but it may also be the opposite. No discussion is made here, and it seems extremely hasty to declare that Facebook is "hamstrung" by their design--I think they are "hamstrung" by the users that enjoy Facebook the way it is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    rubberpants, May 4th, 2009 @ 2:35pm

    They're way ahead of you...

    Don't worry, Facebook's decided to stop trying to be Twitter and become, well, I'm not sure exactly, but something else:


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    refe, May 4th, 2009 @ 2:35pm

    Better to have both

    I agree - it's better to have both. I use Facebook to stay in touch with family and friends, and Twitter to meet new people, find interesting information, extend my network and promote my blog.

    I will say this though - because of it's 'openness' I spend a lot more time on Twitter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    DJ, May 4th, 2009 @ 3:08pm

    Re: Does Facebook Even Want to be Twitter?

    That's a great distinction. Just because one is "the next big thing", doesn't mean that the other ISN'T popular.

    What makes MySpace a failure is that they preach privacy, but there's no such security....But people still use MySpace, because it's simple and, probably more importantly, familiar.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    LS, May 4th, 2009 @ 3:32pm


    I wonder when the other foot will drop, and pundits realise that the vast majority of people don't get and don't care about Twitter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    David Spinks, May 4th, 2009 @ 3:36pm

    Its really about the audience

    You're right...this is the argument I give to my friends that say "isn't Twitter just like facebook status updates?" It's not about what you're writing as much as it's about who's reading. Facebook and twitter serve two very different purposes for me, so I hope that facebook doesn't try too hard to become like twitter.

    I blogged about this topic here...http://davidspinks.com/2009/04/07/twitter-is-not-the-same-as-facebook-status-updates/

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Gwyneth Llewelyn, May 4th, 2009 @ 4:51pm

    ... or, if you're lazy like me...

    ... subscribe to either Ping.fm or HelloTxt.com and update them all simultaneously ;)

    Even more fun is that either of those services will allow you to post pictures (or even videos) for the many microblogging/lifeblogging sites out there...

    ... and to see the replies from all your messages, you can use FriendFeed.com :)

    Sooooo microblogging/lifeblogging is out. Meta-micro-life-blogging is the Next Big Thing!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Matt Brezina, May 4th, 2009 @ 4:55pm

    room on the internet for both

    Hey Mike - great piece - i've been thinking about this a lot recently. We (at Xobni) recently updated our facebook integration with the new API, and our users really like the new stream data. However, I also see some users getting confused about what is available just to their friends, and what is available to everyone on the internet.

    I think Facebook needs to respect and build upon their leadership in the walled social utility world.

    Don't get me wrong - i love twitter. it is the new wordpress+rss, but it is about to be SLAMMED by marketers. Facebook's walled garden still has a special place in this world if they maintain their identity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 4th, 2009 @ 10:53pm

    The day facebook becomes twitter I'll stop using it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Clint Samuel, May 5th, 2009 @ 3:10am

    I'm a facebook and twitter nube, but it seems to me that facebook is often used for identity verification and personal information sharing. Twitter can't really be used that way, unless someone's whole life can always be boiled down to 140 characters. I gather Twitter is used more like a universal chatroom with celebrity verification.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Clint Samuel, May 5th, 2009 @ 3:17am

    Re: Re: Does Facebook Even Want to be Twitter?

    myspace profiles are also amazingly inefficient and really a pain to use. It takes at least 3 minutes to figure out how to reformat a URL link to post on a myspace profile and 30 minutes the first time, if you're lucky.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 5th, 2009 @ 5:21am

    Facebook needs to not only not become Twitter, it needs to move back to what it was originally. Maybe we can't put the genie back in the bottle, but Facebook was more useful when people weren't throwing sheep and having mob wars with each other. More and more these days facebook it just getting cluttered, confusing, and useless. It was a great way to keep in touch with old friends; it doesn't need to be anything more than that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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