Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Facebook Missed the Whale (and it's OK)

UK blogger (and deep thinker) Chris Thorpe writes on his blog jaggeree "Why Facebook Shouldn't be Twitter" opening with a tweet from Tim O'Reilly
FB redesign also shows the danger of paying too much attention to competition, instead of thinking more deeply what you are about. It's hard
As Chris writes, "...he’s nailed it again" and I'd have to agree. Chris goes on to provide some good thoughts on why the "activity stream" that Facebook had served a quite different purpose from the "status stream" of Twitter. In particular he highlights the difference between these two different "communities" of people which helpfully points out why the two different design patterns work well for the way in which those separate communities work. All of which sort of explains my sense of loss every time I look at the new Facebook page and don't see my activity stream.

Expect a lot more of that over the coming days and weeks - and expect the activity stream to return in some form. Facebook is looking over its shoulder and worrying that they are missing out on new ideas like Twitter - and perhaps they are irritated that puny little Twitter turned down their acquisition offer. But most importantly they are looking at an engagement model that may become more compelling than their own for constant connected repeat usage.

Which gives me an excellent opportunity to revisit one of my favorite topics over the last 10 years - how we are slowly building up a set of online communications tools to support all of the different modalities of communications we have in the physical world. Its also a good follow up to my April 2007 post in which I first attempted to explain Twitter.

Looking at the graph to the right, you can see my attempt to more visually explain the idea from that past article of "Presence, Scope, and Permanence" as defining the three axis of a communications cube that we operate within. From that earlier article, here is a more complete description of these axis:
Is it necessary for the participants in the communication to be present at the time the communication is created? For example if you are taking a class, you need to be present in the classroom to get value from the lecture. But you can read a book thousands of years after it was written. The recipient must be present to receive the lecture but is usually not present when a book is written. Similarly, a phone call is a synchronous form of communications -- both speaker and listener must be present. Voice mail is asynchronous -- the listener need not be present at the time the recording is made and the speaker need not be present at the time of listening.

Classrooms engage a defined group of people in a conversation, newspapers engage an undefined group, a phone call typically involves just two people. Scope is about the number of people involved, the relationship between those people, and the privacy of the communication.

Information has a shelf life (or even a half life). Some information is valuable for thousands of years, other information is valuable for only a moment.
Each of these two different communications tools - Twitter and Facebook - fit into different (albeit adjacent) section of the cube. But they are NOT the same -- and the successful design pattern for each will be quite different. In fact, the only axis in which the two clearly share an edge is Permanence -- and even here, Twitter is now being used in ways which might actually move at least a part of their database toward more permanence, whereas Facebook (or at least the old activity streams) are very much about ephemera. Not that Twitter isn't mostly also ephemera (or what Chris calls "nowish" linking to this great visualization on Flickr by moleitau). But there are aspects of how Twitter is being used which can usefully be searched meaning that they have retrospective value.

But along the other two axis - Scope and Presence - the Facebook activity streams and Twitter status updates clearly play(ed) different roles. The reciprocal nature of Facebook meant that you were really only talking to your friends, whereas on Twitter you might be talking to friends, stalkers, the Federal Justice Department -- of course you could control access, but the design pattern didn't make that an attractive usage. And on Presence, Twitter existed as a stream with most tweets being relevant if you were near-immediately present, whereas a Facebook activity update remained a prominent part of a user's profile for as long as that user left it there.

In considering this analysis that I have presented, please do not rely solely on the user experience offered by the two companies, but consider instead the larger user experience created by the communities. In the case of Twitter in particular, look at the 100+ products that have been built around this "message bus" for how people are really using the service.

All of this is why in the end there really are two different businesses here and Facebook will migrate back toward activity streams and someone else will have to challenge Twitter for the status update business. The strategy that Facebook has been following of trying to absorb every part of the communications cube is flawed - the strong anchor for them is SCOPE - this is about reciprocal relationships. For Twitter it is PERMANENCE - this is about ephemera and occasionally about how that ephemera is transmuted into something more permanent because in aggregate it teaches us something new.

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