February 23, 2009

Why I Still Prefer Twitter and FriendFeed to Facebook

Editor's Note: As I noted last night, Facebook is quickly becoming the standard by which many social networking and social media sites are being analyzed, described and measured. Still, as Eric says below, not all are converted, preferring more dedicated sites, including Twitter and FriendFeed. This pair of stories was written independently, and the timing is sheer coincidence.
-- Louis Gray
By Eric Berlin of Online Media Cultist (FriendFeed/Twitter)

I spent the last three years managing the production of a number of social networking websites. During 2006-2007, I produced ZonaZoom, an ambitious (and now defunct) attempt to grab market share of social networking Latino teens in the United States. And I spent a grueling, rewarding year producing quarterlife.com in 2007 and early 2008, the home of short-lived NBC show quarterlife (I'm not including the direct link as the site looks far different now than the version I helped to bring to life.)

So that's all to say that I dwelled in social networking land quite a bit over the last few years. But in my personal time I've never really been much of what might be called a "traditional" social networking person; I'm more of a microblogging/social media/information junkie kind of person, which has led to Twitter and FriendFeed and Google Reader becoming the hubs of my online media (so-called?) "social life." So when I think about how I like to use the web, I've long thought of myself as more of a Twitter/FriendFeed/RSS person, and less of a MySpace/Facebook person.

This made all the sense in the world to me until recently... when methodically, relentlessly every single person that I know, have known, or knew in some former life friend-requested me on Facebook. I exaggerate of course, but it seemed like everyone from the dude I hung out with at woodworking class during a Boy Scout retreat in 1985 to my mother's co-workers added me at some point recently.

So there was that, and there was also the fact gnawing away at me that Facebook's news feed is an elegant feature combining Twitter's simplicity with Friendfeed-like flourishes such as comment threads and the ability to embed images and video.

Therefore, I began to wonder: "Why don't I spend a lot more time hanging out on Facebook? It's got a lovely news feed, and a large slice of the people I know or have ever known in the world are right there for me to chat with and interact with."

I'm still working my way through the reasons why this is so, but here's a working list of why I still far prefer Twitter and FriendFeed to Facebook:

Talking to everyone I know/have known at the same time is not so appealing as it might sound

When it comes down to it, this is the big one for me. When I enter the Facebook news feed, I feel like I'm entering a vast hall where my professional colleagues, potential employers, family, current friends, old and dear friends, old friends that I lost touch with 15 years ago, online contacts, and on and on, are all waiting to hear a formal address from me at the same time. The result is that I have a hard time letting my guard down and actually enjoying the social media experience.

So for some reason – and I expect I'm not alone here – Twitter and FriendFeed feel like much more comfortable places to hang out… which is really the entire idea of social networking in the first place!

News, social media, and pop culture-based conversations versus life conversations

Software platforms create places where people can congregate and communicate and share media and all of those other kinds of wonderful things. The kinds of people that do congregate, and how they communicate and share creates an online culture of sorts that is unique to each software platform.

My experience is that Facebook tends to encourage conversations that center around what people are doing with their lives: video of ski trips, announcements about what people are doing after work, expressions of joy and despair about the minutiae of life, that kind of thing. Now, of course this kind of thing also goes on within Twitter/FriendFeed. But I believe the culture of Twitter and FriendFeed allows for conversations that I tend to be more interested in: hot social media topics, breaking news stories, pop culture debates, and that sort of thing.

So I suppose it seems to me a choice between cultures that tend to be more about news-driven topics versus life-driven topics. News-driven is more appealing to me for the most part.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy hearing about what's going on in the lives of my friends and family as much as anyone. But I still think that things like e-mail and "real life" things like the telephone and getting together in person are still pretty great for that!

Conversation lurking

When I first joined Twitter in early 2007, I thought one of the coolest things about it was the ability to "conversation lurk" and eavesdrop on conversations between the likes of Robert Scoble, Dave Winer, Jason Calacanis, Mathew Ingram, and so forth. And even cooler was the fact that you could participate with the very real chance that a Twitter celebrity of the day would respond. These days, the best place to experience this kind of interaction, I've found, is on FriendFeed in places like the Best of Day section.

Facebook, which is more directly tied to contacts that require an approval process, doesn't really allow for this looser and more freewheeling form of communication and listening in.

What's up with "is"?

One of the functional things that perhaps drives or at least directs the culture of the Facebook news feed is the little word "is." In other words, whenever you post a status update to Facebook, your profile name and the word "is" automatically precedes it. So while "Eric is ranting about the social mediaz" works pretty well, "Eric is New post up about the social mediaz, here's the link" sounds pretty awful. So that little word "is" in itself helps to set the tone for the culture of Facebook's news feed.

Alternatively, Twitter simply asks "What are you doing?" and then lets you have at it. And to be fair and as others have noted, Twitter should probably do away with that question as tweeters have basically created a culture where anything and everything is discussed beyond "mere" status updates.

Flat medium versus social medium?

I'm not sure I completely agree with Adrian's piece at sevitz.com called, as luck would have it, Why I prefer Twitter to Facebook, but I like the introduction of the terms "flat medium" versus "social medium" in comparing Facebook and Twitter:

It’s just this tiny little thread that shifts it from being a flat medium like facebook status to a social medium. It’s that difference that connects you to people rather than positions you as mere observer. And whilst the observation thread is nice, by itself it starts to die as it isn’t self sustaining. Where as the observation with interactivity grows and gets stronger. |t means I become a participant in my friends lives occasionally even if that participation is just Stuart getting coffee.

I'm curious to hear what other people think about all of this. I've tried to give Facebook a chance, particularly because I've never been a tremendous fan of the product. I admire what they've done to be sure and find the explosion of Facebook apps and its soaring popularity remarkable of course, but my personal test is whether I want to stick around someplace online –- if I get excited and engaged and eagerly explore every aspect of what the product offers –- or if I get kind of bored, mentally yawn, and then check my e-mail for 6,001st time of the day. And Facebook has always been in the latter yawn-worthy category for me, quite frankly.

So particularly because so many people I know love it, I've tried hard to give Facebook another chance. But for the reasons mentioned above, I still far prefer Twitter and FriendFeed.

Read more by Eric Berlin at Online Media Cultist