Will Facebook envy wreck Twitter?

Twitter has become so obsessed with the users it doesn't have that it could lose the ones that it does.


There's never been anything quite like Facebook. As a company, Facebook specializes in collecting, hoarding, keeping and engaging users. As a social network, it dominates the market with the largest user base. Facebook has a monopoly as the social network of choice for friends and families.

As the biggest social network, people often compare Facebook to MySpace. But at its peak in 2008, MySpace maxed out with fewer than 76 million unique monthly visits.

Facebook, we learned this week, boasts just under 1.5 billion monthly unique visitors. Facebook grows so fast in users that it adds more than two additional MySpaces a year to its user base.

Even more impressively, Facebook has 1.8 billion users outside of Facebook itself: 800 million users on WhatsApp, 700 million on Messenger and 300 million on Instagram.

Of course there is a huge and unknown overlap. Still, Facebook's total active user number is 3.3 billion. That's a higher number than all the other major social networks combined.

As Facebook proved in its earnings report this week, the opportunities for monetization are enormous. The company has demonstrated that it can make huge revenue in mobile and video ads, and the company is just getting started in those areas. It's also investing heavily in keeping users glued to Facebook with music and video. They're getting into commerce. If all that's not enough, they own Oculus VR, and are likely to be a major force in the coming virtual reality revolution.

Facebook is killing it. Twitter, not so much.

The trouble with Twitter

Twitter also announced earnings this week. After the call, the company's share price dropped to a 52-week low. The reason is that interim CEO Jack Dorsey said the company is lousy at communicating to and thrilling "mainstream" users, and as result, struggles to gain new users. He added that fixing Twitter will take "considerable" time.

Twitter now has 316 million monthly users, up from 308 million in the first quarter. (Twitter is about the size of Instagram, the smallest social network in the Facebook fleet.)

Even more troubling is that Twitter Chief Financial Officer Anthony Noto said during the call that "sustained, meaningful growth" can't happen until Twitter reaches "the mass market."

The "mass market" is just Twitter code for "Facebook users."

Twitter has a serious and obvious case of Facebook envy and, perhaps, is suffering from identity crisis. They want what Facebook's got, and they're apparently planning to get it by re-creating Twitter in Facebook's image.

And that might be a huge mistake.

Twitter was the best Twitter

Twitter gained fans by asserting itself as the hyper-minimalist alternative to all other social networks. It's beauty and power was the 140-character limit on messages. While that's hard for people trying to have conversations or express complex ideas, it's great for followers. They could follow a large number of people and news sources without being overwhelmed.

Twitter is the peace-of-mind social network. You can trust Twitter -- what you see is what you get. When you follow someone, you get all their tweets -- you don't have to wonder what you were missing. Facebook, on the other hand delivers by default only a tiny minority of the status updates posted by your friends.

When you're away from Twitter for a few hours, no worries! There's no anxiety to find out what you missed. Twitter is all about the now.

Every new tweet from every person you follow appears instantly and reliably at the top of your stream. When it appears, you know that "this is the most recent tweet from everyone I follow." It feels honest. Users feel in control because there is no secret modifications to their streams. Twitter feels good.

Because of all these attributes, Twitter gained extremely influential users. Nearly every journalist, politician, singer, actor, scholar, scientist and public intellectual seems active on Twitter.

Sure, they're only as big as Instagram. But the "quality" of the Twitter user base from a fame and influence perspective is second to none. And that’s what sets Twitter apart and makes it unique.

Twitter's got a good thing. But it looks like they're getting ready to ruin it.

Twitter will be the worst Facebook

The most unsettling comment during Twitter's call was from Dorsey. He said that in order to appeal to "mainstream" users, Twitter needs to be more like Facebook and stop serving up tweets in reverse-chronological order. This, he said, would be part of a broader "questioning of our fundamentals" and would "balance recency with relevance."

Twitter's "Project Lightning" will use human editors and curators to cobble together cherry-picked content from Twitter accounts you're not following.

Twitter has already started dabbling in the algorithmic arts. When you're away for awhile, Twitter now serves up a software-determined subset of the tweets you missed based on a variety of invisible "signals." The new homepage design went into widespread release Thursday and shows "greatest hits" like tweets from users you don't follow.

They're also emphasizing pictures, Vines and videos and even auto-playing videos. They've gotten rid of the 140-character limit for direct messages. They've packed streams with advertising, promotional design elements (for example, constantly suggesting new people to follow), and Periscope invitations.

The mobile version has a "card" interface, which Twitter copied from Facebook and Facebook copied from Google. It's also got a new "Twitter ads" button for managing advertising. Many external articles now "auto-expand" to show pictures and part of the article right in your feed.

Twitter last month got a new Facebook-like "birthdays" feature, so you can tweet "Happy Birthday" to people without having known what their birthday was. And you'll feel obligated to do so.

Both Dorsey and Noto spoke urgently about the need to satisfy investors with user growth and monetization, all based on the need to expand beyond the existing loyal user base.

And this expansion involves re-making Twitter in Facebook's image.

Whether Twitter's user base grows fast or not, the company intends to deliver better financials to Wall Street. That means each user will be increasingly bombarded with advertising, including video ads.

How Twitter could lose it all

Twitter used to be special. It had a unique purpose, look, feel and functionality. As a result, it gained a unique user base and became the default social network for public people like celebrities, politicians, journalists and activists. It’s been the network of choice for breaking news as well as important world and entertainment events and commentary.

These qualities are what made Twitter better than Facebook in powerful ways. By copying Facebook and abandoning minimalism in favor of Facebook-like clutter, Twitter risks losing both its uniqueness and its special audience.

If that happens, Twitter won't be better than Facebook in any way. I fear that Twitter has been led astray by both the pressures of going public and by the winner-takes-all culture of Silicon Valley. Every company has to win every user, and at all costs.

The supreme irony in copying Facebook is that, well, it's not what Facebook would do. If Facebook felt fear of missing users, it would build or buy an external service to gain those users. Facebook would never fundamentally change what it is to chase users.

If Twitter wants to copy Facebook, it should copy Facebook's approach to defending itself against rivals. Instead of killing the Twitter that we know and love and re-making it in Facebook's image, Twitter should launch or buy another service and build a separate Facebook.

By transforming Twitter into a Facebook clone, Twitter is essentially saying it doesn't want to be Twitter anymore. All I can say is: Be careful what you wish for.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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