What do Facebook’s changes mean for Google and Twitter?

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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

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