With Twitter Envy, Facebook Adds (Near) Real-time Web Capabilities

Facebook today announced several (and somewhat big) changes to their homepage/newsfeed, as well as the removal of most distinctions between public pages and profiles. These changes are an attempt to take on Twitter, which Facebook failed to acquire late last year. Facebook has always been the proponent of a more interactive web, but the growing popularity of Twitter has shifted the focus from mere interactivity to a more real-time web.

Real-time web, as we’ve argued in the past, is the next logical step in the Internet’s evolution. Twitter currently leads this move to a “now web,” but today Facebook took steps to becoming a real-time web company, though it has a ways to go. For starters, Facebook announced changes to its home page that would allow streaming of “posts from your friends in real-time.” Facebook also changed the status prompt from “What are you doing right now?” to “What’s on your mind?” — a blatant attempt to prompt a more real-time interaction, and bringing it one step further than Twitter’s “What are you doing?”

In another move that mimics the Twitter functionality, Facebook announced that from now on there will no longer be a limit to the number of friends a user can have (the previous limit was 5,000). There will also no longer be Facebook “Pages;” everyone will have profiles instead. In the past, Facebook avoided this type of interaction, opting to classify users as fans, and hampering the levels of interaction.

Twitter, however, has one type of profile for everyone, and has broken down these barriers, as people (famous and non-famous alike) and organizations have adapted to engage in two-way dialogues. A great example of this difference is in Shaq’s Facebook page, where interaction is one-sided and his Twitter, where he and fans speak to each other directly. Undoubtedly, Facebook does not want organizations, especially those with large ad dollars, to move over to Twitter to build their audiences.

While we don’t necessarily believe that Twitter and Facebook are competitors as of today, the future is uncertain for both, and Facebook is smart to be addressing the Twitter question.

Twitter’s growth has been astounding; it has managed to capture the hearts and minds of users and developers alike: In 2008, Twitter grew by 752 percent. Twitter has also fostered a somewhat more democratic ecosystem, one that has allowed apps on the platform to see huge growth in traffic. That has sparked a gold rush for app developers, many of whom have been frustrated by the restrictions handed down to them by Facebook.

We wonder if these attempts by Facebook may be a case of too little too late. With exponential growth, a new round of capital, and developers creating innovative apps on the platform, Twitter is well positioned to ride out the roadblocks Facebook is putting in its way. Furthermore, as Facebook adapts its platform to stave off the Twitter threat, it will be interesting to see how the community reacts, as they’ve been notably resistant to change.

Brendan Gahan is a research assistant at GigaOM.

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