Facebook admits it can't create a public network like Twitter's
Twitter's logo should have been a parrot.
The company has been updating its service to more closely resemble Facebook's since March, when it released new photo-focused features and made its users' profiles look more like a Facebook page than a never-ending stream of tweets, and started to mimic Facebook's advertising strategy by bringing mobile install ads to MoPub.
Facebook isn't nearly as good at copying other companies' products. Its response to Snapchat, Poke, was so bad that the company tried to claim that it was "always more of a joke" when it finally shut down the app earlier this month. Its response to Foursquare, Places, was killed in 2011. (The check-in feature is still around, but it's so bad it's hardly worth mentioning here.) But, funnily enough, Twitter seems to be the company Facebook has the hardest time copying.
First the company tried to get celebrities to use its service instead of Twitter's when they want to slum it with their fans. Then it introduced hashtags, social media's least-liked punctuation mark, to encourage global discussions about trending topics. From there it released a feature that showed users what everyone was talking about, made profiles public by default, and made sure to verify the Facebook pages of celebrities so users knew they were "Liking" the real deal.
Those efforts have been met with varying success. Some celebrities are using the service as a way to communicate with their fans, but that's hardly a core aspect of the average Facebook experience. Hashtags are often ignored and might actually make posts less "viral" than posts that aren't pockmarked with pound keys. Trending topics are ignored as easily as Facebook's advertisements, and its little blue checkmark showing that a famous person is who they say they are is just a way for people to know how angry they should be about that person's posts.
But the biggest failure was Facebook's effort to make new users' profiles public by default. The company today announced that it would ask new users if they want the things they share to be visible to their friends or the public, and that other users would see a "privacy checkup" tool in the coming weeks to verify that they do indeed want their inane ramblings visible to everyone. Perhaps the biggest change to Facebook's service since the photo uploader was first released has been tampered with new respect for user privacy and some help from a tiny blue dinosaur.
In some ways, this reversal is in line with other changes to Facebook's service that purport to give its users more control over who can see their information. (See: the Nearby Friends tool, the ability to sign-in to new services with Facebook's login tool without giving them access to the service's vast amounts of information, etc.) But it also shows that Twitter has one thing that Facebook doesn't -- and might not ever -- be able to copy: a truly public social network.
Twitter users are comfortable with the service's public nature. Most know that their tweets can be seen by anyone, and many are starting to learn that things posted to the service can be grabbed by any writer looking for some story fodder. Using Twitter is like standing in front of an open window and doing jumping jacks in an open kimono, and its users are fine with that.
Using Facebook is like doing those jumping jacks with the blinds down. Some people -- and Facebook itself -- are able to peek inside, but as long as Facebook's users have control over who can see through the cracks, they accept that as a risk of doing those jumping jacks in front of a window instead of somewhere a little more private. Facebook changed that when it made new profiles public by default, and now that people have noticed that their dangly bits were in full view of anyone passing by their digital window, the company has had to close the blinds again.
Twitter is able to parrot many things about Facebook's service, but Facebook won't be able to mimic the comfort with which Twitter's users interact in public. Parrots can learn how to talk, but it's harder for a person to learn how to squawk, and in this case, Facebook is the person.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]