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Summary:

The changes that Facebook launched this week have clearly upped the ante for Google, which desperately needs the signals that come from social activity to feed into its search and advertising algorithms. But Twitter is playing a somewhat different game than either Facebook or Google.

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Facebook sucked up most of the oxygen in the technology world on Thursday, with the launch of a series of fairly radical transformations of the giant social network, which now reaches about 800 million people (we’ve collected our coverage of the f8 conference here). So where does that leave Google and its Google+ social network, or Twitter and its goal of becoming a real-time social newswire? Facebook’s changes have clearly upped the ante for Google, which desperately needs the signals that come from social activity to feed into its search and advertising algorithms, but Twitter is playing a somewhat different game, and Facebook seems more like it could be a partner rather than a competitor.

At Facebook’s last f8 conference in April 2010, the social network launched its “open graph” platform and plugins, which allowed any website to create Facebook “like” buttons and widgets and connect those to its content — and millions of websites have done so in the months since that announcement. In a sense, Facebook extended its tentacles outward and grabbed hold of activity that was occurring elsewhere on the Internet, then incorporated that into the site and showed it to users. Masterminded by CTO Bret Taylor, this was a fairly massive shift in what the site was about. No longer did people have to go to Facebook to interact with content; they could do it anywhere.

The latest changes are partly about reversing that process, and creating more reasons for users to spend time on Facebook itself and engage with content there. Social apps like the ones launched for Spotify and Hulu let users watch movies and listen to music within Facebook; social-reading apps like the ones launched by The Washington PostThe Guardian and News Corp.’s The Daily let users read stories from those publications within Facebook and share them with others; and other social apps let users share their physical activity and so on. All this takes place on Facebook — which is a risk for media companies, as I tried to outline on Thursday.

The introduction of “frictionless sharing”

In addition to the launch of social apps, Facebook changed the way sharing of that activity happens, and effectively removed the necessity for publishers or services to use the “like” button — a fairly significant move, as MG Siegler noted at TechCrunch. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described it, the need to click a button to share things was getting in the way of users sharing, so the new process (where users give an app or service approval once and then all their activity is automatically shared) creates what he called “frictionless sharing.” Items a user is reading or listening to or otherwise interacting with simply show up in the new “ticker” section of a user’s page.

These substantial changes to the way users interact with Facebook and Facebook-based apps are a significant threat to Google in trying to grow its Google+ network. Before the new features were launched, as well as others that came before f8,  Google’s new offering looked pretty competitive: the addition of “Circles” to create groups of specific friends was something Facebook didn’t really have (although it has had Lists for some time), and it made it easy for people to share photos and other content. It also had the advantage of being an “asymmetric” network like Twitter, which meant that anyone could follow another user without having to get their explicit approval.

Then Facebook launched “smart” lists, which make it easier to group friends and connections on the network, and just as quickly launched a “subscribe” feature that added an asymmetric aspect to the service — allowing users to get updates from people even if those other users weren’t their friends. Now, the social apps and frictionless sharing have upped the ante even further: what does Google have that can offer these same kinds of features? Although Google+ has an API now that allows developers to connect their apps and services to it, there are no “social apps” for Google+ yet, and no services that can feed content into the network as seamlessly as those from Spotify and Hulu.

Even when those apps appear, which they undoubtedly will, Facebook has something Google doesn’t have and may never have: namely, 800 million users who spend huge amounts of time on the site — according to Zuckerberg, the network saw over half a billion users in a single day recently. Google may be huge, but the idea of it as a social network is still relatively new, and so it has an uphill climb even to gain awareness with non-geek users, let alone chip away at Facebook’s dominance. There will be a certain contingent of users who resent the fact that Facebook is trying to take over their lives and become “the consumer OS,” as Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff put it, but their numbers might be too small to make a real difference.

Google gets frozen out, but Twitter plays a different game

The risk for Google, as we’ve described before, is that through these new services and features, Facebook starts to accumulate an even larger body of data about the activity of those 800 million people — and about their desires as well, since the network is expected to launch a “want” button soon. That is gold for an entity like Google, not only because those signals are important for search but because they are increasingly important for advertising. And there is virtually no chance that Facebook is ever going to share any of that information with Google, or provide it in a form that allows for easy scraping.

And what about Twitter? As I’ve argued in other posts, I think Twitter is playing a different game — one that Facebook may be trying to get into with some of its changes, but isn’t well-suited for. In a nutshell, Twitter isn’t a social network at all, and never really has been. It allows for social behavior around information, but it is not in any sense a one-size-fits-all social destination with timelines and social apps and games, and all the other things Facebook (and Google) want to offer. It’s designed to do one thing well: short bursts of information, like a real-time social newswire. And it can target users based on that.

Real-time news isn’t something Facebook is very good at. It may talk about changes to its news feed making it “your personal newspaper,” but that news is still mostly about friends and what they are doing. The addition of news sources via the subscription feature — and the rollout of social apps from news publishers — may change that mix somewhat, but it’s not going to provide what Twitter provides. There’s also the risk that Facebook’s frictionless sharing simply produces too much noise for many users, as the site tries to be all things to all people. So long as Twitter focuses on doing one thing well, that will be its ace-in-the-hole. Google, however, badly needs some more cards.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Tambako the Jaguar and See-ming Lee

  1. I think Google and Twitter should be excited, these FaceBook changes suck and almost everyone hates them. Why change what isn’t broken? People were STILL getting used to the last FB change. It’ll be MySpace all over again. And I recall someone telling earlier that a Representative of FB was on the news, saying “The service is free, if you don’t like the changes then don’t get on.” Regardless if it is a free service or not, The consumer gets what they want. You really must want to lose your users, don’t you, FB?

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    1. If the world indulged in the mindless mentality of not changing something because it isn’t broken we would still be stuck in the stone age. Products, services, companies MUST continue to innovate and evolve.

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    2. Stephen Robinson Sunday, September 25, 2011

      Everyone I know that watched said they didn’t like it, I told them how to try ‘timeline’ and they loved it.

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  2. J. Puglisi, LLC Friday, September 23, 2011

    I think the debate is flawed. Here is my perspective. They will all have a place in the sun.

    http://jpuglisillc.blogspot.com/2011/09/is-this-business-or-pleasure.html

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  3. The only thing the new Facebook changes mean for Google+ and Twitter is that users, like myself, will be flocking to them because the FB update truly is awful.

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  4. Serena De Biasi Friday, September 23, 2011

    Great article. Actually it seems like we mapped down into bits and workflows all the ways people like to communicate and we already pushed the born of new needs, as example being in-touch 24/7 on different channels (skype, messenger, FB, Twitter, linkedin, etc..)
    Now don’t you feel “over-drugged”? I do think we have reached a good level of saturation on HOW we keep in touch and have business with others. That’s basically the reason why we are looking at refinements as lists or circles while there’s no real change in the root metaphor.
    I also think that this is a critical step: we have to decide what will be the focus for the next years. Will it be content management? Info management or simply an overall better quality?

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  5. I personally don’t like these new facebook changes. And it seems like the majority of people using the service aren’t too fond of them as well. I was invited to Google+ and i’m really liking their clean,basic layout. When it comes down to any website,I guess you can say i’m really looking for a minimalist feel to it and easy accessibility. These Facebook changes make the site feel cluttered. I’ll still use Facebook but Google+ and twitter are definitely my primary choices.

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  6. hmmm,
    facebook goes from a simple site that helps us connect with family and friends and it now tries to be all things to all people all the time. In short, it wants to become the internet itself. Not sure which ambition is more brazen, google wanting to organize all the inforamtion ever produced with facebook wanting to be all things to all the people. I just think facebook is inadequately staffed to achieve its ambition and its ambition is even bigger than Google’s. They need to be hiring more than smart engineers, they need even more visionaries. They need to hire people like Mohammed Younus for example. People who get humanity, like economists. Or maybe even such cartoon drawing people like Scott Adams.

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  7. the other point is content creators, the lifeblood of any social network, will need to be on google+ too. Just remember google+ public content is not for immediate consumption alone, it is accessible via google search which is still the number 1 source for traffic for most of the web.

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  8. I personally wouldn’t mind more of a collaboration and integration between Google and Linkedin. When I look at my Google + engagements, it leans more towards biz type connections than Facebook does. Also, a lot of the Google features are more used by businesses than in the mainstream at this point. Everybodies inter-connecting anyway – a Google Linkedin collaboration would be cool to me

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  9. I’ll tell you what this means for Google and Twitter.

    This announcement means that facebook users will be spammed to death, by EVERYTHING and they’ll just run away from it.

    Google+ and Twitter are about to face a massive increase in users.

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  10. Well, let the spoofing begin. . .Here’s the latest FaceBook tracking option.

    It’s called ALLforAll:

    10:50:09: Breathed in.
    10:50:14: Breathed out.
    10:50:24: Noticed cat sleeping on chair.
    10:50:32: Wind stirring leaves outside house. Temp 71 degrees.
    10:51:02: Sun came out from behind cloud.
    10:51:24: Had funny thought.
    10:51:34: Cleared throat.
    10:51:45: Rear section of Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) just crashed through house.
    10:52:59: Cat now awake.
    10:53:17: Thirsty..

    –From the whimsical Thinking Out Loud, http://marperl.blogspot.com/

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