Facebook, Twitter, and Walled Gardens

Today Facebook announced a new homepage whose re-design appears to be a response to the growing popularity of Twitter. Or more explicitly (to strip away the brand and focus on the technology), Facebook is moving towards the real-time web by adding a Stream view that shows updates from friends. In the words of Facebook’s director of product development, Chris Cox, “the stream is what’s happening”.

Indeed, the stream is certainly compelling. There is potentially great value in receiving & transmitting information as quickly as possible. As Twitter shows, people want to opt-in for notices from connections & information sources, but it’s uncertain whether Facebook users will be able to handle the unrestrained volume of content that it’s users post. Information is valuable only when it’s useful. The 140 character limit of the SMS underlying Twitter forces information to be clear & concise. It’s hard enough to keep up with Twitter posts, much less following everything your Facebook connections are allowed to post. The stream may simply be too overwhelming for most.

However, the interesting bits include the addition of filters that allow users to manage stream views, offering some hope to pare down the data glut. Likewise, the proposed ability to visualize a user’s social graph – the immediate and extended connections they have in Facebook – coupled to a lifting of the 5000 friend limit will open new opportunities for connectivity and communication but will also force users to manage their filters in order to deal with the volume.

The main downside seems to be Facebook’s ongoing insistence on private networks that are probably a legacy feature from the college-only days of in-group cliques that initially colonized the service. How will the rest of the world find value in it’s thoughtstream? How will businesses leverage the trends and interests of Facebook users if it’s too prohibitive to get access? Facebook may have the advantage in user numbers, but Twitter has the advantage in connectivity.

While Facebook boasts 175 million users, they cluster mostly in private groups. As someone who doesn’t use Facebook, I often encounter links that take me to the Facebook gates only to be turned away. It’s a walled garden to which the uninitiated do not have access. If Facebook is to approach the really interesting value of Twitter as a real-time search tool, it will need to open it’s network (and its API) to the rest of the world, thereby challenging its own users. Otherwise it will remain a land of closed & Balkanized cliques content to share party pictures and trade dollar beers, which may be enough for a business model but may fall short of moving into the territory currently occupied by everyone’s most surprising competitor: Twitter.

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