When I first started using Quora, I followed a set of topics that clustered tightly around 2-3 nodes (startups, VC, internet television). My stream was super rewarding to consume — it just felt coherent and deep. But as I’ve explored the service more and followed more people and topics, my stream’s degraded noticeably in terms of what I get out of it. What was once a rich experience is now frenetic and confused. But so far, I haven’t found a way to make the service manageable again without sacrificing a content set that I’ve spent a long time curating. Pruning topics would be like throwing out books„ and I just hate that shit.
Twitter suffers from the same problem, although oddly, I’m more ruthless about unfollowing people whose tweets no longer interest me than topics whose content I’ve left for a while. Still, both services face an interesting challenge: the more a user explores the service, the more they dilute the focus of their experience. The nature of the stream is so low friction, it’s just too easy to let yourself push past the efficient frontier of breadth vs. depth. This was less a problem in with higher friction forms of consumption. Before, when I wanted to listen to a CD or read an article, I had to think about what I wanted to hear or read, then actively seek it out, sometimes by even (gasp) walking across the room. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, I just sit and watch the choices go by me, picking out and pursuing the ideas that catch my eye. I’m lazy, so that’s great, but it’s also a different — and in many ways less fulfilling — experience than I had when I was forced to trade attention for effort. This is the problem Twitter and Quora and all other services built around curated streams: few of us are actually good at curation. To win this space, a company must — through teaching or tooling — help users become good curators. Otherwise, they risk letting users turn their streams into a mess, and no one wants that, right?
Whenever a website goes down or something universal happens that I want to investigate, I go to the Twitter home page. But 99% of my time is spent in TweetDeck, paying attention only to the handful of people I actively follow. It’s listening vs. engaging, I guess, and Twitter is vertically integrated on one, and pipes only for the other.
Opening the API really fractured the product in the most incredible way. Effectively all of my contact with Twitter flows through the API, not the site. I can’t think of another site I can say that for. Twitter’s value to me is its pipes, TweetDeck’s is its interface design. It’s like a water utility vs. Kohler.
It’s funny, the more I think about Twitter, the more I think of it as infrastructure.
Ben says: “Facebook is all about sharing with friends…Twitter is all about shared interests.” I’d go one step further: facebook is meant to connect you with the people you already know; Twitter is meant to connect you with the people you don’t know, but want to. In that sense, facebook is backward-looking and twitter is forward-looking. One is about where you’ve been; the other is about where you are going.
Depending on the person, these two worlds can be completely overlapping, completely distinct, or anywhere in between.
I often hear friends and colleagues say - ‘I’m already on Facebook, so why do I need to be on Twitter?’ Considering how common this refrain has become, let’s try to set the record straight: Twitter and Facebook are very different each serving unique purposes and providing distinct benefits to its users.
Twitter and Facebook share one important characteristic - whether calling it micro-blogging or status updates, both allow users to share short-form content with friends/followers. It is this commonality that leads many to mistakingly perceive Twitter and Facebook as interchangeable substitutes.
Although the content format may be similar, the distribution and consumption paradigms are highly distinct and differentiated.
Facebook is all about sharing with friends. Everything about Facebook is oriented around replicating the real-world social graph. In fact, it was Facebook’s early focus on creating ‘trust-communities’ of people who know each other (in it’s formative days at the University level) that distinguished Facebook from other early social networks and set it ahead of the pack. As a result of this focus, when you share and consume content on Facebook you are deliberately doing so with and from a select and contained group of trustworthy friends.
In contrast, Twitter is all about shared interest. Unlike Facebook, the Twitter social graph is not rooted in real-world relationships but rather in real-world interests. I follow people and people follow me because we are interested in similar subjects and we share content that is thoughtful, informative and relevant to each others lives. Case and point, of the ~150 people that follow me and the ~90 people that I follow, I would estimate that only ~25% are real-world friends.
The ‘openness’ of Twitter has powerful implications for both consumption and distribution of short-form content. With respect to consumption, it is often the case that individuals in my social circle and thought-leaders in areas of personal interest are not one and the same. Despite this disconnect, Twitter provides on-demand, real-time access to follow the thoughts and musings of people who are interesting and relevant in my life (professional or otherwise) - thus providing a highly personalized channel for information discovery regardless of my relationship with the person projecting the content.
Similarly, on the distribution side, Twitter allows me to share content which is personally interesting and relevant with anyone in the world who cares to listen. In this capacity, it serves as a mechanism through which to form and cultivate ones (increasingly important) digital identify and actively participate in the global online conversation. Compounding this distributive power is Twitter’s Retweet feature which exponentially expands the distribution capacity of a given tweet by allowing anyone to instantaneously share content created by others.
I hope it is now clear that the issue is not which company/platform is better and which is worse, it is simply that they are different. Twitter and Facebook are imperfect substitutes, and in fact, are quite complimentary. I go to Facebook because I care about the lives of my friends. I go to Twitter because I care about topically-oriented conversations. These are different use cases and both value-additive in my life.
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