One stream to rule them all (the real Facebook vs. Twitter war)

In his piece Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?, Robinson Meyer takes a look at the fascinating rise of Upworthy news posts in Facebook and suggests that the recent changes from Facebook and Twitter are about creating one stream to rule them all:

“In the past year, Facebook’s anti-Twitter tactics have reverberated across the site. Its “subscribers” feature was renamed “followers”; it added a verified checkmark next to its celebrity users; it adopted a way of displaying related news stories that mirrors Twitter’s. Facebook is even experimenting with a trending topics section. The larger social network seems to be altering the entire fabric of its site to fight the newer, smaller one.

Meanwhile, Twitter seems to change itself—adding in-line images to its feed, for example—to try and become more like Facebook.

Two social networks, trying to become more like the other. It is, as Buzzfeed’s John Herrman has written, “the fight for the ultimate feed.””

I think Meyer is right…that is the real war going on here. It’s about attention first, and intent second. First, you need to have people’s attention, and social networks are where all the attention is. Second, you need some notion of purchase intent. For the most part, people on Facebook are not there to buy stuff from their friends. This results from the core relationship model, which started off as a symmetric model (we both need to friend each other) but has recently become much more asymmetric. (I can follow you without you following me). Notice that the asymmetric model allows for different intent than the symmetric model. You can follow your favorite sports team, your favorite brands, your favorite people and they don’t have to follow you back. And in many of those relationships, if the person/company in question is selling something, it is much more likely to lead to a purchase than if you can only follow your friends.

Back in 2009 I wrote this: Relationship Symmetry in Social Networks: Why Facebook will go Fully Asymmetric. At the time I thought Facebook would push the follower model to simply grow faster. Now I think it’s clear that it’s also much more valuable from an intent standpoint…we follow things we’re interested in and that’s a heck of a lot more potentially valuable to Facebook than following our buddies from high school.

Published: December 11th, 2013