A Look At Recent Convergence Between Facebook and Twitter

There have been a lot of comparisons between Facebook and Twitter over the past few months, ever since Twitter gained strong media coverage after a few months of solid growth. Having previously tried to buy Twitter, the suspicion has been that Facebook is adopting many of the features of the microblogging service. Let’s take a look at some of Facebook’s recent developments to see how that theory stands up.

The Stream

Facebook’s replacement of “the news feed” with “the stream” back in March brought inevitable comparisons with Twitter. The layout bears more than a passing resemblance, and although there are more rich and varied content types in Facebook (like links, application stories, and videos as well as status updates) the similarity between the two is undeniable.

Facebook’s stream:
Twitter’s feed:

Opening up the stream

A criticism levelled at Facebook had always been that it was a closed environment. There were concerns that it was trying to horde user data and much of the success of Twitter was attributed to the openness of the API – a feature that means that you can use Twitter without ever visiting the site after initial sign-up.

Recently Facebook opened up the stream API – a way for third party sites and applications to access a user’s activity and publish to the stream in desktop applications or external websites. There are more privacy concerns on Facebook than Twitter – Twitter knows very little about each user, so there’s less data at risk – but by opening up the activity stream Facebook has adopted another of the features that has been identified as a part of Twitter’s success.

“What’s on your mind?”

First the “is” was dropped from Facebook status updates, and then the “What are you doing now?” question was replaced with the much more open “What’s on your mind?” The prompt is now not just asking you to update friends on your activity but to share whatever you might be thinking about, reading or watching. It’s taken some time but people are starting to get used to typing something that isn’t limited to the progressive tense. Interestingly, Twitter prompts “What are you doing?” but has always been used in a less literal way that has been described as a thought stream.

Facebook’s status prompt:

Twitter’s status prompt:

Usernames

Since this past weekend, Facebook users are now able to use friendly aliases for their profiles. Much like twitter.com/yourname, users are now able to have facebook.com/yourname too. This will make it much easier to pass names around – all you need is the username and can guess the rest – and opens up the possibility of adding links to your Facebook profile onto business cards. Will it follow this move with being able to direct comments to users with an addressable @ message, as Twitter does? It certainly seems possible as a way for users to draw each other into conversations.

Asymmetrical relationships

Often pointed out as the differentiator between Facebook and Twitter, asymmetrical relationships are best explained by using Twitter’s “Follow” paradigm. Put simply: I can follow you, but if you don’t follow me, then our relationship is asymmetrical. This is in contrast to Facebook, where befriending somebody is a mutual act – both parties have to agree to be friends. In Twitter most users allow anybody to follow them, but they may or may not reciprocate.

So how are the two sites similar? Facebook Pages (or public profiles) are clearly asymmetrical: “Become a fan” is basically the same as Twitter’s “Follow.” Facebook took another step towards asymmetry by giving users the ability to hide individual friends in their stream. This allows you to befriend somebody yet never see any of their activity. The workings might be very different between Twitter and Facebook, but the end result has some similarities.

Look under the hood a bit more and there are more telltale signs that asymmetrical relationships are going to become more prevalent on Facebook. Along with the release of the new homepage and the stream a new set of tables were exposed to developers, including one called “Connection“. This defines the links between people and people (friends) and between people and pages (fans). They’re treated interchangeably for the purposes of the data store. Even more interestingly the table contains a very Twitter-like column named “is_following”.

There are no signs that Facebook will go towards a fully asymmetrical model – and I don’t believe it’s appropriate for it to do so (although some do) – but the potential to implement asymmetrical relationships is there and may be utilized more as the site provides more features catering to commercial clients.

Is Facebook really becoming like Twitter?

Despite all of these Twitter-esque changes to Facebook, the two sites are still very different and serve very different purposes. Like any business that watches trends in its space, it’s more plausible to believe that Facebook is taking inspiration from Twitter (and others) to refine their offering than to say that they’re worried by the competition. The similarity of some features may point to convergence, but it’s an open question as to why this is happening and whether it’s a trend that will continue.