Will Facebook and Twitter Become Communication Tools or Identity Platforms?

Recently, a new study from the Harvard Business School showed that in “stunning” contrast to social networks, where most of the activity is focused around women, on Twitter, men are much more likely to follow other men than they are to follow women. In other words, men find the content shared by other men much more interesting on Twitter than on Facebook, while men find the content shared by women much more interesting on Facebook than on Twitter. Why might this be?

The authors of the HBS report, Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, start down an interesting track in their parenthetical note wondering why men are less interested in women on Twitter: “because of a lack of photo sharing, detailed biographies, etc.” Here, I believe Heil was implying that men are more interested in following women who they can find real information about, but women in general share less personal information (like you’d find on their Facebook profile) on Twitter, so as a result men follow women less on Twitter. While the Harvard report didn’t explore this idea in more detail, we’ve all made similar anecdotal observations about Twitter in general: it is a place where people build public identities, and as a general rule share less sensitive personal information.

The natural levels of disclosed identity on Facebook and Twitter reflect important things about their future. While social media PR professionals wrestle with whether Twitter is a conversation platform or a broadcast platform – in and of itself a very interesting question – one thing we’ve all intuitively known since we were children is that not all conversations want to be public. While celebrities and those wanting more professional visibility are sharing a lot of information on Twitter, most people will always have a variety of topics that they’re unwilling or uninterested in talking about publicly: proprietary business information, personal/family matters, or (depending on how concerned you are about identity theft, stalkers, or surveillance) any other random topic that may incidentally contain and disclose personally identifiable information about you (like your location at a specific point in time, preferences or tastes, birthday, etc.).

Twitter follower statistics from HBS:

By contrast, Facebook is largely private. With some notable exceptions (like profile photo and fan pages you’re a fan of), almost all personal profile data, photos, and shared content are by default only accessible by people in your friends list. As a result, Facebook identity is strong due to high levels of disclosure and social reinforcement. Not only are profiles detailed and authentic, but every time users make a real friend connection, they’re building more trust in both their Facebook identity and others’ as safe contexts to share personal information. Further steps, like tagging friends or being tagged by friends in photos, reinforce that trust in that identity even more – each tagged photo is like a “vote” that your Facebook identity is real.

Is this significant? As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told us last week, the power of Facebook identity is a lot stronger than you’d think:

You can start a blog saying you’re someone you’re not, you can start an account on some other service really easily saying you’re someone you’re not. One thing that’s really interesting about Facebook is, for example, I had a friend who decided that he wanted to create fake identities for himself on Facebook using a bunch of different accounts just for fun – but he couldn’t do it. He could get a few fake people to add him as friends, but ultimately people looked at the people that he knew and asked, ‘Why don’t you have friends?’ or ‘Why don’t you have pictures of you with other people?’ They thought, ‘Something just doesn’t add up here.’ It was really hard to create a fake account, and because of that understanding of realness within the system, it’s really easy to weed out different behavior when someone’s trying to be a worm or trying to phish.

Conclusion: Today, Twitter is a Communication Platform, but Facebook is an Identity Platform

People who are concerned about the security of their identity are obviously less likely to share personal information in a public forum. Thus, because Twitter is largely public and Facebook is largely private, the degree of disclosed identity on Twitter is likely to always be lower than that on Facebook. That means significant things for the future of Facebook and Twitter as products, and also as businesses:

  1. Content sharing. Content shared on Twitter is likely to always be different than content shared on Facebook. In particular, those concerned with identity theft, being stalked by strangers, or tracked by anonymous surveillance systems are going to be the most conservative, while those concerned with increasing their celebrity or visibility are always going to be the most aggressive.
  2. Advertising. Facebook’s advertising business is largely based on targeting users according to information they declare in their Facebook profile. Currently, Twitter profiles contain sparse biographical data and basic follower/following statistics. Twitter’s business model is unlikely to be based on profile targeting.
  3. Identity Platform. Recently, Twitter launched a competitive product to Facebook Connect called Sign In with Twitter. So far, Facebook Connect has been implemented by about 10,000 websites, desktop and mobile applications, and most recently, video game consoles. In order for Sign In with Twitter to gain market traction, it’s going to have to continue to prove itself as a reliable identity system even though many users are hesitant to share more sensitive personal information.
  4. E-Commerce. Facebook is in the process of alpha testing a payments system built on top of Facebook identity. In the future, it could spread its payment platform across all websites which connect to and rely on Facebook identity through Facebook Connect. Twitter is still a ways off from building its own commerce system on top of the Twitter platform, but interesting payment applications are starting to develop on top of Twitter like we’ve seen on the Facebook Platform for the last couple of years.

When viewed this way, Facebook and Twitter actually look like pretty different products and businesses today. Twitter is a hybrid broadcast/conversation communication platform, while Facebook is an identity platform with communication, content distribution, and financial applications built on top of it. Unless Twitter gives users more Facebook-like control over different parts of their identity, Twitter is going to have a hard time serving those users who are more sensitive to security in addition to those aiming for more visibility. But Twitter may not be worried about that right now anyway.

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