Should Twitter be afraid of Facebook’s subscribe feature?

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For a long time, the biggest difference between Facebook and Twitter was that Facebook was what’s known as a “symmetrical” network: in other words, in order for you to connect with or follow someone, they had to agree to that relationship. Twitter, however, is asymmetrical, which means that you can follow anyone on the network regardless of whether they approve of you doing so. Now — as Erica reported earlier Wednesday — Facebook has added a new feature that allows users to “subscribe” to updates from people they aren’t actually friends with, which brings an asymmetrical aspect to the giant social network. So should Twitter be concerned about this Twitter-fication of Facebook? I don’t think so.

Although Facebook (not surprisingly, perhaps) doesn’t mention Twitter anywhere in its announcements about the new subscription feature, it seems obvious that one of the reasons for adding the new functionality is to give users some of what they get from Twitter: In other words, the ability to get updates from people they don’t already have an existing relationship with. As Erica notes in her post, this feature also gives users the ability to filter the content that comes from the people they are connected to — by excluding the irritating updates about FarmVille or Mafia Wars, for example — but the real intent appears to be to offer something like a Twitter-style following option (Facebook will also apparently provide some recommendations for who to follow).

Follow journalists, artists and political figures

The Facebook blog post, for example, makes it clear that one of the main purposes of the new option is to allow you to follow “interesting people” such as journalists, artists and political figures. Vadim Lavrusik, who was hired by Facebook in April to do outreach with journalists and media outlets, contacted a number of journalists (including me) to tell us how to turn on subscriptions and how we could use the feature to distribute our content. Lavrusik also offered to move anyone who had signed up for my Facebook “fan” page over to the new subscription feature — since setting up a separate page, like a company or brand would, was previously the only way to send updates to non-friends.

So since this feature is so much like Twitter’s following model, will users start deserting Twitter to follow people and media outlets on Facebook exclusively? I don’t think so. Although the new feature might make it more appealing for some Facebook users to stick with that network and follow people through it — prominent writers such as New York Times correspondent Nick Kristof, for example, who already uses Facebook extensively — they were already able to do that through “fan” pages, and this feature really just makes that easier (apparently you’ll be able to tweet from your profile soon as well).

I’ve argued before that I think Twitter is uniquely designed to be a real-time news distribution network, and has become just that for so many millions of users that a new feature from Facebook — or the launch of Google+ for that matter — isn’t likely to erode its position significantly. In part, Twitter has achieved that status because it is so stripped down: with short burst-style updates, it functions almost exactly like an old-fashioned newswire does, and that makes it perfect for quick updates about news events like a revolution in Egypt or an earthquake in Japan.

Twitter is better equipped to be an information network

It’s not just that Twitter is an asymmetric network. Facebook is much more of a full-fledged social network in ways that Twitter is not; its focus is on connecting you with your social graph so you can share thoughts, photos, games and so on. Obviously, it’s also an information platform, and it seems clear network wants to boost that aspect of its business, but I think most users still see it as a place they go to get information and/or news primarily from their friends. Twitter is where people go to get information and news from a wide variety of sources, some of whom may be friends.

That’s not to say the overlap between the two networks isn’t increasing — and features like the subscription option are part of that. Google is also trying to find a way to do many of the same things that both Facebook and Twitter are doing, in part because it wants to benefit from the social signals that occur on such networks. So far it hasn’t been able to convince either Facebook or Twitter to give it that data. The competition between these three networks is definitely ramping up, and the larger Twitter grows and the more Google integrates Google+ into its other services, the more there is likely to be.

But if Facebook seems to have a lock (at least for now) on the status of leading social network for connecting with family and friends, Twitter seems to have become the default information network for getting real-time news from a wide variety of sources, whether they are friends or not. It’s going to take more than the addition of a subscription feature for Facebook to derail that status, I think.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Abysim and Petteri Sulonen

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