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January 24, 2011

I am not at all ashamed to say that I love Twitter, even after huffing and puffing and blowing my Facebook house down.  Am I a hypocrite for jumping out of The Social Network and into another? Have I left the frying pan for the fire?  Or the deep-fryer?

Maybe I’ve been unfair to Facebook users in the past.  Facebook does a few things right; it offers a very solid image hosting service (creepy auto-tagging and employer surveillance aside), and party invitations are a lot easier to deal with when everyone you already know is on the network and one need only check boxes on a checklist.  And sure, Twitter is not above shallowness; one can easily obsess over whom to follow or who follows you.  We’re only humans; of course, we’re going to have our share of foibles, and of course those will slip into any activity with which we engage.  But I think there is a more fundamental and identifiable reason why Facebook is inherently inferior as a social network to Twitter.  There are architectural differences in their openness and closedness that almost add up to a philosophical distinction in what kinds of personas and interactions result on either network.  But this might take more than 140 characters, words, or sentences to explain.

First and foremost, I’d posit that the real difference lies in the architecture of each network.  As I’ve learned from people much smarter than me, and as I’ve said before, and as I’ll say again: “Pull beats push.”

Facebook’s social dynamics are all pushed at you, whether it’s a friend request, a poke, someone writing something that is ambiguous as to whether or not it requires a response (e.g., “Hey!” and nothing else), or a Zombie Bites™ Invitation, or whatever.  Forming a relationship (i.e., friending) is basically obligatory if you’ve ever met someone ever, otherwise you risk setting off a cascade of implicit insults.  And because you have to have relationships with such a wide network of people, as a sharer you are constantly required to tend to the profile one creates online.  Think about that; not only are you exuding a slightly altered (more peppy, pretty, earnest, and generally successful) life online, but you have to constantly and carefully manage the persona that is perceived by others.  It’s like a non-stop high school reunion.  And of course that means that a lot of the real information about you has to be carefully doled out and limited (which diminishes the value of the network anyway).  Think about how many more addresses and phone numbers were on Facebook when it started and you had to have one of the few college domains for your email address to gain access.  And then of course, even when you think you’re carefully managing what you’re sharing with the world, Facebook is still selling your phone numbers and home addresses to third parties.

Aside from the hand-wringing of what you can/should share in the context of a Facebook relationships, you are constantly being shared at, whether you like it or not.  Often, intimate details of others’ lives might have been better left unknown.  Maybe you didn’t want to know that your co-worker just got a huge raise.  Maybe you didn’t need to see pictures of your friend’s wedding/newborn that they didn’t choose to share with you more directly.  It might be nice to not know that the mother of that friend-you-had-in-middle-school-but-haven’t-spoken-to-for-years has just died and your former classmate is pretty broken up about it.  What is the appropriate response to such information?  Is there even one that wouldn’t come off as either clumsy or insincere or self-serving?  And why do you have to puzzle out that quandary when your former classmate wouldn’t have dreamed of pulling you into that situation.

On the pull“side of things, it’s fairly easy to see that one’s subjective user experience on Twitter is entirely user-controlled/defined.  You don’t see any information in your stream from any sources you haven’t deliberately chosen to see.  You are free to modify as much as you like, and you are able to categorize and remix the streams into various lists.  And you can also see what someone else thinks is valuable information.  Specifically, the retweet.  Unlike the Facebook “like,” which requires almost no thought and is more of a pat on the back than anything, the retweet is an excellent and meritocratic construct that both rewards people for coming up with worthwhile statements, pointers, or ideas and also disseminates the same (with a credit attached) to others in a cascade of influence.  A retweet is a vouch much more worthwhile than any Facebook like or fandom.

And part of the fun of Twitter is that since content is key, and users are free, an account doesn’t need to directly correlate to some flesh-and-blood human being.  Some of the fake accounts (e.g., @NotGaryBusey, @BPGlobalPR) are more fun than the real deal.  And comedians can do their thing way more easily and freely on Twitter, and their tweets can get delivered far and wide, without having to worry about real-world privacy implications of weeding through friend requests.  By the same token, people and corporations of real influence (e.g., @JohnMcCain) respond far more interactively on Twitter, where anyone’s tweets can be seen by the entire user base if they say something interesting enough.

Perhaps most ingeniously though, the (in)famous 140-character limit on tweets actually helps both reader and tweeter become more thoughtful in their communications.  One learns to express a sometimes complex statement in 140 characters (even though you can always send more than one at a time).  One must decide which recipes are worthy enough to put their own cachet on the line.  One learns to write a joke that doesn’t take too long to get to a punch line.  One learns to get to the point.  And on top of all that, one realizes that there are sometimes better places to direct people than the social network (e.g., a blog, a news website, a photo album specialist, a file-sharing site, or some more definitive source of information than the status updater’s ass.  One learns to provide references.

One has to learn these things because what one tweets is one’s profile.  Twitter is like instantaneous Facebook (or a derivative, in the mathematical sense).  One needs to constantly define oneself through tweets rather than constructing a shrine to oneself in a static profile of pretty images.  It’s like the difference between being forced to learn to tread water or stacking blocks sufficiently high for one to stand in the deep end without kicking.  One makes you a stronger swimmer, the other gives you a Napoleon complex.  On Twitter, tweeting something over a course of time is the only way to prove you have opinions or earnestness about a topic or a cause.  You can’t just join a group once to say that you’re in favor of gay marriage rights; you have to support it actively, and not let it fall by the wayside, believing your duty has been satisfied by simply being a member of that group.  Tweets speak louder than likes.

The biggest difference in architecture is where the locus of social activity is happening on each network.  Many different applications and services can utilize Twitter’s architecture in various, generally permissive, permutations: dozens of apps can deliver your Twitter stream and rearrange that data in any way you like (contra the one and only Facebook app).  What’s more, features and services on Twitter are entirely opt-in; you don’t have to ever use a feature you don’t choose (e.g., the new-style retweet or #NewTwitter).  Unlike Facebook, you don’t have to turn off features that are introduced willy-nilly by a profit-maximizing entity built on the premise that it will sell all of the information it collects on you to third-parties.  You don’t have to work with a completely new design and reworded settings every 3-6 months.

At a fundamental level, Twitter is meant to work with the rest of the web, not crowd it out.  Twitter allows–or, perhaps, requires–one to conduct most of one’s life on the rest of the web.  Twitter does not purport to provide every service under the sun, nor a place for you to experience the entire web, not even #NewTwitter.  You still have to use external file-hosting sites, email clients, etc., while Twitter concentrates on its core function as a delivery platform for short-form of communications, excerpts, or directions of web-traffic.  As Google had put it, back when it followed its own advice, “do one thing, and do it really well.”  Facebook, on the other hand, wants you to stay on the site forever, and for that reason is giving you inferior products like “Messages,” “Chat,” “Places,” etc.  Facebook rewards you for staying addicted to what it pushes; Twitter rewards you for doing things that people appreciate.

I guess I shouldn’t praise Twitter too highly; it’s not like Twitter will necessarily make you a better person, a better sharer, or make you any less addicted to spying on other people’s lives.  In the end, it may just be another battleground for one’s ego.  But hey, it’s working for mine right now.

oThink about how many different applications and services can utilize Twitter’s architecture in various, generally permissive, permutations: any app can deliver your Twitter stream and rearrange that data in any way you like.  What’s more, features and services are entirely opt-in; you don’t have to ever use a feature you don’t choose (e.g., the new-style retweet or), and you don’t have to turn them off if they are introduced willy-nilly by a profit-maximizing entity built on the premise that it will sell all of the information it collects on you to third-parties.  You don’t have to work with a completely new array of settings every 3-6 months.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Karz permalink
    January 26, 2011 10:49 am

    Would it be taboo to click the ‘Like’ button on this one?

    • SlickRickSchwartz permalink*
      January 26, 2011 11:13 am

      Now that you’ve commented more substantively (and with a joke!), don’t you feel better than a click of a “Like” (even a wordpress one)?

  2. January 26, 2011 6:10 pm

    Good article Rick. I like your push/pull comparison of the two sites. I have one tiny beef in that you say that Twitter content is “pulled” by the user instead of “pushed” at them and I would say that is true except for Retweets. I go on to twitter and I have tweets from people I definitely don’t follow and then I squint and realize they’ve been Retweeted by someone I dofollow, often with no additional commentary, such that: 1) I’m getting updates from people I don’t follow, and 2) it took about as much effort for the Retweeter to Retweet as it would to “like” something on Facebook. However, I think your analysis is generally spot on. The fact that you are limited to 140 characters on Twitter requires you to EDIT and, as you know, editing is key to good writing in any form. Facebook profiles could all benefit from some editing. (I used to like Facebook over MySpace because you didn’t have to see someone’s pink leopard print background on their page and scramble to stop some video that was buffering just to check in on their profile, now Facebook is quite cluttered as well.)

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