The evolution of Facebook and Twitter has been a tale of two cities. Facebook valued privacy, and in turn, closed systems, for both its users and developers. Twitter, on the other hand, built its site on openness. As a result, Twitter has excelled in public information (like aggregating “real-time” trends, and enabling the Iranian election protests), while Facebook has remained the go-to platform for sharing and consuming private information (like personal photos, small group events, “likes”, etc.). Last week, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s new Open Graph platform, which marks a substantial step towards openness for the social network, and could have a profound impact on the rest of the web.
To users, social networks are only as valuable as the number of people on them, multiplied by their willingness to share information. Twitter represents 100 million people who are freely sharing their thoughts with the rest of the world (you don’t need to be “following” someone or logged in to access >99% of tweets), but these thoughts are refined to 140 characters, and typically aren’t very intimate. Facebook, on the other hand, gives you no-holds-barred access to the personal information of your friends, but this group usually doesn’t exceed 1,000 people. And so we’ve ended up with two very different treasure troves of data: a little information from a lot of people in Twitter, and a lot of information from only a few people — from a given user’s perspective at least — in Facebook.
To developers who build third-party apps for these platforms, the difference between open and closed can have an even greater impact. From early on Twitter offered open, flexible, easy-to-use tools to interact with its service, and as a result, today more than 75% of Twitter’s traffic comes from 3rd-party apps. Facebook, in stark contrast, initially adopted a “walled-garden” approach, in which 3rd-party developers were constrained by strict rules, an inability to use Facebook data outside of the site itself, and a dizzying, closed programming interface that made it difficult to code anything for Facebook in the first place. Facebook’s Apps platform flopped (with one notable exception, the social gaming giant Zynga, which allegedly makes more money than Facebook, but that’s another story). The social network tried to play catch-up with a string of services that slowly increased openness at the expense of privacy: its Beacon program allowed the websites of big companies to interact with Facebook directly, but this ignited a barrage of privacy complaints and was shut down; then Facebook Connect enabled any website to replace its sign-in process with Facebook’s, but this didn’t gain particularly widespread adoption; and then last week Facebook finally figured it out.
Facebook’s new Open Graph platform could be the beginning of the end for Twitter. To date, Twitter has competed with Facebook by offering a more open platform, easier-to-use developer tools, and better social integration. With Open Graph, though, Facebook catches up in one fell swoop. Twitter will soon launch its new “Annotations” tool that will enable longer-format tweets more similar to status updates. While this may seem like a step forward, it is a risky move for Twitter, and a sign of the changing tides. At this time last year Facebook was trying to emulate Twitter: they streamlined their posting interface, highlighted the role of public status updates, and emphasized Facebook search. But now the tables have turned, and Twitter is becoming more like Facebook. I worry that for a company that rose to prominence purely on its simplicity and ease-of-use, ANY major feature additions (and Twitter has had virtually none since it started 4 years ago) risk undermining its own reason for existence.
I really hope that Twitter survives the Open Graph wave, because if it doesn’t, Facebook’s singular reign over the web could have some scary implications for users. I’m optimistic, though, because I think Twitter’s true potential — gleaning brand new insights from huge amounts of real-time data — hasn’t even begun to be harnessed.