Facebook vs. Twitter: Who wins the battle for our social attention?
Twitter and Facebook: Competing or completely different?
This year, Facebook founder & CEO Mark Zuckerberg used an earnings conference call to reaffirm Facebook’s grand vision, saying it was about “connecting everyone & improving the world through sharing.”
Twitter CEO Dick Costolo also talks a lot about how he sees Twitter as “the global town square.” On Twitter’s website, it states that its mission is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”
Both visions overlap – they cater for “everyone” and are about opening up the world through sharing. However, a subtle difference in emphasis accounts for a lot of the differences in the role they play in our lives – Facebook talks about “connecting” whereas Twitter talks about “ideas and information.” I think this is ultimately what makes Facebook a true social network whereas Twitter is more of an information network.
So what are the key battlegrounds for Facebook and Twitter?
Battle for scale and user volume
This is quite an easy one to call today – Facebook has 1.23 billion active users compared to Twitter’s 232 million – over five times more. Further ahead, a challenge for both is what happens as user growth starts to slow down and settle, particularly in mature markets.
Battle for real-time news attention
This is where Twitter excels. The reason that its status updates or “tweets” are restricted to just 140 characters is that it was originally conceived to add a social layer to SMS text messaging before smartphones became widespread. While 140 characters might not be enough for long-form blog content, it does force users to be concise, and they can still link out to external websites and articles. Hashtags, like #Election, #Oscars, or #JustinBieber, help to categorize the information, determine what’s trending, and enables a dense and rapid-fire information flow.
Battle to connect us with our friends and family
Here Facebook has the edge – reflecting the emphasis of connection over information in its mission statement. Whereas you can follow anyone you like on Twitter – which results in a lot of one-way connections if they don’t follow you back – Facebook friend requests require mutual consent. This usually means that you end up with more ‘real’ connections of people you actually know.
Battle for where we build and share our digital identity
Our profile page on our favoured social network is a statement of who we are, what we’re about, and who we want to project to the outside world.
Both networks have similar tools to enable us to customise our page with profile pics, cover images and headline statements, which to a certain extent allow us to create carefully crafted and idealized versions of ourselves.
Both Twitter and Facebook enable us to craft our digital identity and then turn that identity into our digital passport as we move and login to other apps other sites across the web.
Battle for our mobile attention
Twitter’s short-messaging roots make it ideal for mobile, whereas Facebook has struggled to embed a ‘mobile-first’ culture. There are signs however that this is changing, and with Messenger, Paper, Instagram, and the recent acquisition of Whatsapp, Facebook is rolling out and beefing up a number of apps beyond its main ‘one size fits all’ mobile app.
Battle for leadership and profits
Facebook’s leadership has been strong and stable – Mark Zuckerberg deserves credit for keeping control of the company he founded, and he still owns 57 percent of Class B voting shares. In Sheryl Sandberg, he also has a respected and high-profile and COO, who has led some of the commercial efforts while Mark has been able to stay true to his programming roots.
This contrasts with lots of management drama at Twitter. The largest shareholder is Evan Williams, co-founder & former CEO, who owns 12% of the shares. Chairman Jack Dorsey owns 4.9 percent and current CEO Dick Costolo 1.6 percent. A former improvisational comic, Dick has been described as an ‘un-CEO’ who’s more focused on user growth than revenue. He has however steered Twitter through a very smooth IPO (in contrast to a rocky IPO for Facebook), and has gained a lot of traction for his “global town hall” vision for Twitter.
Facebook is now profitable. Strong results last week from Facebook’s Q4 earnings saw the company beat analysts’ expectations, causing a 19 percent share price boost.
Twitter, on the other hand, is still losing money, with doubts about its monetization strategy, and relatively few advertising units on its website/apps. It will be interesting to see how markets react to Twitter’s Q4 financial results on Wednesday – figures from trading firm IG suggest that traders are currently biased 52 percent to the short side on Twitter stock.
So who wins the overall battle for our social attention?
So for most of us, Facebook is currently winning the battle for our social attention. Its sheer volume of users and the way that our account has become the “digital glue” and login across multiple services mean that it is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. However, a bit like Apple products (endless small enhancements to iPhones, iPads etc.), user excitement with Facebook has dimmed and people just take it for granted as an everyday part of life online. With the shift to smartphone and tablets, it is no longer enough to own the web.
Overall, who gets our social attention comes down to what we value the most – connection or information?
The ultimate social network might find a way to be brilliant at both. In the information and ideas bucket, Twitter is better than anyone, and I believe that it will continue to have an important role to play. Yet, as it broadens its role in the social media world, Facebook looks better set to remain our dominant friend.