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How Facebook Squashed Twitter, by Ben Thompson, Stratechery

Stashed in: Interest Graph!, Twitter!, Facebook!, @ifindkarma, Attention, Awesome, Active Users, MOBILE, Twitter, Mobile Ads!, Interest Graph

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The feed is what makes the mobile device so useful.

The introduction of Twitter in March of 2006, along with the Facebook News Feed, in September 2006, were the two seminal products that brought all the essential components together: users, content, and a place to read. I would argue it’s a date that is just as significant.

Today, having a feed that users willingly return to day-after-day is the foundation of successful mobile advertising companies, especially Facebook. As I noted back in 2013 the feed allows for an advertising unit that is actually superior to anything found on the desktop: users have no choice but to at least visually engage with whatever is dominating the screen of the mobile device that is the center of their lives.

In fact, I would argue that the feed is so important that its development — or lack thereof — is the core reason why Facebook has soared over the last ten years, while Twitter has slumped after a beginning that suggested the exact opposite sort of outcome.

Ben on why Facebook was so successful:

  • Facebook always had an inherent advantage over Twitter in that its network, at least in the beginning, was based on networks that already existed in the offline world, namely, people you already knew. That made the service immediately approachable and useful for basically everyone. Twitter, on the other hand, was more about following people you didn’t know based on your interests. This theoretically applied to everyone as well, but uncovering those interests and building an appropriate list of people to follow had to be done from scratch.
  • As any product moves down the diffusion curve from early adopters to the mass market, the marginal willingness of each new user to go through the effort of introducing said product into their daily life decreases: early adopters will jump through all kinds of hoops to take advantage of the product’s utility, but the 100 millionth user, to pick a number, is a lot less willing to go through the trouble. In retrospect it seems clear that in 2009 Twitter reached that marginal user: the service had tremendous visibility, but it was simply not worth the effort to get started for an increasing number of people.

  • Facebook, meanwhile, in 2009 made perhaps the most significant change to their service since the introduction of the News Feed, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that said change is roughly correlated with Twitter’s slowdown in growth: the News Feed added items beyond friends and family status updates, and it switched from being chronological to being algorithmic. Yes, the early adopters who had gone to the trouble to tune their feed complained, but the real beneficiaries were users who didn’t want to go to the trouble of making sure they saw something interesting — whether related to friends and family or not — whenever they visited Facebook. And, starting in 2009, those users had even less motivation to get Twitter working: Facebook was good enough.

Why Twitter will have difficulty catching up:

Unfortunately for Twitter the attention market of 2016 is far different than it was back in 2009. When Dorsey states that he wants Twitter to “become the first thing everyone in the world checks to start their day and the first thing people turn to when they want to share ideas, commentary, or simply what’s happening”, he is no longer trying to capture an entirely new market, but rather to steal that market from well-established competitors, particularly Facebook, but also services like Snapchat, Instagram, and the messaging services, all of which have feeds of their own. And Facebook in particular has undergone its own evolution. I wrote in Facebook and the Feed:

Facebook is compelling for the content it surfaces, regardless of who surfaces it. And, if the latter is the case, then Facebook’s engagement moat is less its network effects than it is that for almost a billion users Facebook is their most essential digital habit: their door to the Internet.

Or, to put it in Twitter terms, Facebook has developed its own interest graph that is far more powerful and effective and easier-to-use than Twitter’s ever was. Yes, Twitter still owns niches like NBA Twitter, and news hounds like myself (and most of you reading this article) will continue to find it essential, but for nearly everyone else in the world it is Facebook that is the first thing people check, not just in the morning but in all of the empty spaces of their lives. In short, it’s not simply that Twitter needs to convince users to give the service a second-chance, something that is already far more difficult than getting users to sign up for the first time; it’s that even if the service magically had the perfect on-boarding experience leading to the perfect algorithmically-driven feed, it’s not clear why the users it needs would bother looking up from their Facebook feeds.

Have all our interests already been served and all our attention spoken for?  Have all the companies given up on interest in creating, analyzing, and employing the Interest Graph to make their services better and create more opportunities for commerce?   Is commerce really important anymore?

The Interest Graph is very valuable.

The problem is that uncovering those interests and figuring out who to follow has to be done from scratch. 

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