Facebook vs. Twitter vs. LinkedIn vs. Google+

Unlike, say, the email that keeps piling up in my Inbox, available time for social media is not an ever-expanding commodity. Which means that even though engaging with readers on social networks is a key part of my job, it's getting close to triage time. If social media isn't a core part of your job, you may be even closer to social media overload and looking to decide where best to put your efforts. Here's what I find to be the strengths and weaknesses of each:

Facebook

We're having nice success with our Computerworld page, but I can't say my Sharon Machlis author page is doing much for my own personal brand (if you want to help change that, please do give it a "like" ... ). Perhaps I'm not using the platform to its best advantage or spending enough time and effort there -- I'm not a big fan of the overall Facebook environment -- but my sense is that Facebook is best either for personal connections or corporate brands and less so for connecting with individuals (who aren't celebrities) you don't know personally.

Strengths:

Critical mass. Many people joined Facebook simply because so many other people and businesses they know were there. It's hard to argue with 750 million users. And it's not just numbers -- people tend to use the site frequently and stay for awhile.

Keeping up with family, friends and acquaintances.

Brand promotion. When users "like" your company's Facebook page, they are in essence advertising it to all their other "friends."

Internal analytics. It's fairly easy to get stats about user activity on a corporate page.

Ease of engagement. It's exceptionally simple for users to express an opinion about something by clicking a button. Additional comment is optional, but that one simple click advertises the item to a user's social circle.

Weaknesses

Segmenting your life. Google+ appears to be focusing on this issue by organizing around "circles," allowing an easy way to target particular posts to friends, family, colleagues, etc. In fact you can do this on Facebook as well, but Facebook lists are not as easy to find or edit; nor are they as easy to view as a separate stream.

Privacy. With changing privacy mechanisms and unannounced changes that occasionally undo prior protections, it's best to assume that anything and everything you post on Facebook is public. That's fine for most professional and personal branding activities, but less so for a lot of other types of personal and professional communications.

Data export. If you ever want to leave Facebook, there's no way to export your content short of manually scraping page by page. The only way around this is to keep copies of everything important you post on Facebook in a single location, so you can re-create content elsewhere if necessary. Correction: As several commenters pointed out, Facebook has in fact implemented a way to download information from your account, by going to account settings.

Following issues. If there's an elegant and useful way to follow topics on Facebook, I've yet to find it. Yes, there are interests and pages you can click on, join, like and/or follow, but I haven't find many to be especially useful.

Environment. With an old-style interface, personalized-occasionally-to-the-point-of-creepy advertising and endless game app posts that need to be quashed, it's no wonder that Facebook has a fairly low satisfaction level despite its high level of usage. That doesn't necessarily mean Facebook is ripe to become another MySpace, but it's something that bears watching as the Google+ vs. Facebook battle plays out.

Twitter

Strengths:

Following interests. This is still my preferred platform for finding and following interesting people and issues. I'm much more likely to follow someone I don't personally know in my Twitter stream, and I also regularly look at hashtags like #dataviz and #gis to keep up with topics I like.

Twitter is also excellent for creating temporary communities around events by use of hashtags.

Brevity. Twitter's short-form restrictions is ideally suited for an era of microscopic attention spans, allowing people to quickly scan for items of interest and click through for more when they want to.

Weaknesses:

Brevity. The 140-character limit that's appealing for some is a frustration for others. Not every important point can be whittled down to a tweet.

Potential overload. If you've got a robust list of people you follow, you'll likely miss a lot. There's so much content streaming by, it's simply impossible to catch it all. If you're a business using Twitter, you usually can't count on more than a small fraction of your followers seeing any given tweet.

Platform itself. Twitter has made great strides in building out its infrastructure to handle traffic loads and reducing appearances of the "fail whale," but when it comes to user experience, innovation seems to be happening more among those building clients or services around the Twitter API than within Twitter itself. Yet relying on a small, third party service can be risky, as I discovered when Twitter purchased Backtweet and shuttered its API -- so much for my internal tracking tool that tallied which of our stories was being tweeted most frequently.

Analytics. While there are plenty of ways to measure the effect of your own tweets, measuring how much traffic Twitter is generating overall can be difficult, since so much of it comes from desktop and mobile clients and not via twitter.com.

LinkedIn

I've long thought of LinkedIn more as a professional networking database than a social media platform: a place where having a presence is critical, but visits were confined largely to looking up potential hires. However, the site has become a treasure trove of competitive intelligence as well as an increasingly important referrer of Web traffic.

Strengths:

Professional information. No major social networking site can touch LinkedIn for information about individual white-collar professionals as well as career opportunities and company info.

LinkedIn Today. To its credit, LinkedIn is trying to leverage its large user base for something besides career networking. LinkedIn Today is the site's effort to promote top-shared content, including breakdowns of stories by industry.

Weaknesses:

What's a connection? It used to be that LinkedIn connections meant something -- for instance, if two people had a 1st-degree connection, you could be confident one had first-hand knowledge about the other. Now, though, people seem to be connecting with others whom they barely know, if at all, making the research via networks less useful than it used to be.

Sharing is still limited. Sharing content is quite possible on LinkedIn, but not all that robust; for example, you can't scroll comments about the items, just see who shared. The site wasn't built for this, and it shows.

Google+

Although Facebook was the service designed initially for students, some adult Google+ early adapters were the ones acting a bit like junior high schoolers, exulting about being in the cool kids' club and even hoping the uncool ones could stay excluded.

That's not Google's fault; and to their credit, Google did open up the Plus reasonably quickly after demand built up. However, they've been clear from the outset that Google+ is still in test mode and has bugs to work out. Changes are already in the works for later this week.

It's to be expected, then, that Google+ is still missing quite a bit, such as an API and access via third-party apps -- and, most surprisingly, search. However, I assume those are coming. Here are some other points that may not be related to beta status:

Strengths:

Segmenting your life. Plus is built around the idea that you've got different parts of your life, not all of which are interested in the same things. This isn't simply about hiding embarrassing photos from an employer, but understanding that your co-workers may not be interested in the video of your niece's play while your uncle has no idea what "desktop virtualization" is and wants to tune out any talk of it.

This along with the lack of Farmville-type game apps is why some proponents believe Google+ is poised to become a Facebook for grownups.

Video chats and hangouts. While Facebook finally did roll out video chat, it's just one-on-one for now. Google+, meanwhile, offers group chats -- and the ability to create a "hangout" where anyone invited can drop by as they wish. This may not have mass appeal, but the ability to ad-hoc video chat with a couple of colleagues in various locations can be handy, as I discovered last winter during an Apple FaceTime chat with several co-workers from home during a snowstorm.

Integration with the rest of Google. This is the potential Google+ killer app: a social media platform that's well integrated with everything from email (Gmail) and office productivity (Google Docs/Apps) to geolocation (Google Maps) and, yes, search.

Weaknesses:

Difficult to scan. When I open Google+, often there's just one item taking up the entire opening screen -- and that's on a 23-inch monitor. As the number of people in my circles rises, the scrolling required to catch up will become overwhelming. Google needs to rethink the display on the opening home screen.

Lack of brevity. While some find it freeing not to worry about tight limits for status updates, some will also abuse that freedom. Having what could be the equivalent of long-form blogs stacked up from dozens of people in one's circle may become someone daunting to sift through (one of the many things that turned me off to Google Buzz).

Lack of critical mass. Besides the obvious issue that Google+ is far behind major competitors in social media users, the service also isn't yet integrated into external Web sites' "share" buttons.

Why use? This is one of the biggest questions from skeptics: What's the compelling reason to move to (or add) Google+? You don't need to be a social media innovator to know that Facebook is a place to collect brand "fans" and/or find old friends; and, if you're running a conference, it's wise to publicize a Twitter hashtag. But what's use case for Google+? The answer may take awhile; after all, few people envisioned Twitter as a crowdsourced breaking-news platform or Facebook as a personalized ad-serving mechanism during those services' early weeks.

For now, a number of early adopters are rebalancing their social media efforts to experiment with Google+ to find out what it does best. Whether you want to as well depends largely on whether it's important for you (or your company) to be among the first on a social media platform -- and whether your key customers expect to find you there.

Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is smachlis@computerworld.com. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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