Social Media: Is Facebook Tilting at Twitmills?

Facebook has moved forward on several fronts this week, from tweaking its search capabilities to include out-of-network user updates for a more “real-time” experience, to the purchase of FriendFeed and most recently the beta testing of a so-called stripped-down Facebook Lite. While there are separate logical reasons for each of these changes, many commentators have remarked that in total they suggest a renewed focus on Twitter.

But is Twitter really a competitor to Facebook? I say no.

This is not to say that the two platforms don’t have superficial similarities. They both thrive on link sharing and status updates while also allowing for some measure of private communication.  Some observers might also look at the graying of Facebook’s demographic and the now infamous “Teens don’t tweet” studies to say that they compete for the same users.

The reality is that the sites may have some substantial crossover in users but the reasons why they use each platform are actually very different.

The most obvious difference is in who you are reaching within your network on each site. When it comes to Twitter followers tend to be folks who might know you casually if at all, people you work with, and a smattering of close friends. Oh yeah, and spammers.

On Facebook the tendency is to only follow folks who you already have some relationship to and who you know from life offline. There is very little spam but more traditional marketing and advertising.

Then there is Twitter’s 140 character limit, versus Facebook’s comparative logorrhea. Then there is the wealth of information and activity that takes place across Facebook’s user and fan pages, something that is severely limited on Twitter.

Conversely, many users access Twitter through third-party tools such as Tweetdeck and newly-purchased-by-Facebook FriendFeed while Facebook Connect is becoming a standard third-party sign-in tool.

A simple look at the types of content and conversations that occur on each site also illuminate their differences with Facebookers often commenting and picking up conversations over the course of days while Twitterers are more about the here-and-now.

Twitter also tends to encourage peer group based interactions based more on professional interest where Facebook is a more casual conversational space.

The bottom line is that Facebook should be cultivating what its users already like about the experience rather than chasing Twitter around. The fear that Facebook’s leadership is no doubt addressing is that they will be rendered irrelevant overnight by an upstart in the same way they themselves sucked the wind out of MySpace and Friendster’s sails.

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