Is Facebook Running Away With Real-Time?

The hashtag may never have achieved full adoption. But did Facebook accomplish what they wanted to do anyway, in terms of making the network a hub for real-time content consumption?

The 87th Academy Awards unfolded not just on broadcast TV and at the Dolby Theater but also on social media, on Facebook in particular. ABC livestreamed backstage content from the festivities on their Facebook page. And Facebook created a “trending experience” for the Oscars, aggregating content from The Academy, ABC, celebrities and users’ friends at Facebook.com/oscars.

In other words, Facebook users could keep up with a live event as it happened on the network.

It wasn’t always like this. Remember when hashtags officially came to Facebook? It might seem like it was late last decade, but it actually happened in July 2013.

The news prompted a lot of talk at the time, much of which said that Facebook was looking to gain ground on Twitter as a spot for following stories in real time. At that point, this felt like a big shift for the network—Facebook just didn’t seem like it was built to follow stuff in real-time. It would have been difficult to imagine, for example, that Oreo’s much-imitated “dunk in the dark” Tweet during the 2013 Super Bowl would have gotten anything close to the same traction if it had gone out only on Facebook.

The hashtag may never have achieved full adoption on the network (except maybe by comedians). But did Facebook accomplish what they wanted to do anyway, in terms of making the network a hub for real-time content consumption?

A gradual transition

Facebook also made major efforts to enhance the live experience a few weeks ago at the Super Bowl. They created a real-time portal for the game like they did for the Oscars, with highlights, posts from players, and ads.

Facebook said that 65 million people discussed the big game on the network, adding up to over 265 million total interactions, including likes, posts and comments. Twitter, on the other hand saw 28.4 million super bowl-related Tweets. With the difference in user numbers, metrics, and measurement (Facebook was counting all day; Twitter just from kickoff), it’s impossible to make a direct comparison. Still, it’s clear that Facebook’s real-time efforts are paying some dividends.

It’s not just the event-specific portals that are driving the changes in how people use Facebook. The network has made a lot of tweaks geared towards optimising for use in real time. Besides introducing trending topics in January 2014, the company also adjusted its algorithm in September of that year. Those changes aimed to quickly surface content that was getting a lot of engagement at a specific moment, making the network more real time. Those changes seemed to have a much bigger impact on my News Feed than any others.

A major goal for Facebook has certainly been to increase engagement. Users tend to stick around to see what happens to topics that they are following in real time. People stay glued to Twitter for hours when there’s breaking news; Facebook would surely like more users to be doing the same there.

Both companies are also vying for a bigger share of the significant second screen market. Previously seen as Twitter’s dominion, Facebook has been making significant inroads there recently. For starters, the company announced that they would be offering real-time ad targeting tools during this year’s Super Bowl, which allowed advertisers to reach people whose posts contained specific keywords.

Twitter making moves too

Recent news from Twitter will have a significant impact on how people use that network in real time.

The company announced that they would be partnering with Google, giving them access to their firehose, which means that Tweets will be indexed by Google and appear in search results in real time.