Facebook has kept busy with plenty of launches lately, the announcement of Facebook Home chief among them. But it’s only the latest in a long line of new features and tools that Facebook has been churning out lately.
When you piece together all of these incremental changes, step back, and get a 1,000-foot view of what’s happening, it all becomes so suddenly clear: Facebook is turning into Twitter – or at least, it’s trying to.
No, we’re not about to see a flood of spam accounts, and no the News Feed isn’t going to be replaced by a real-time stream – but take a look at some of the similarities in Facebook’s recent feature upgrades and beta tests.
Bonjour, blue-bar update icon
Facebook has begun testing a new icon that would sit by your name in the upper right hand corner, allowing you to update your status in one click. If you think this looks familiar, it’s because Twitter’s had nearly the exact same tool for quite a while.
While Facebook’s test has already come and disappeared for us, it’s yet another indication the social network is pulling out all the stops to encourage to post more. Facebook can only be our social, personalized newspaper if we contribute to it, and right now engagement is down. By many user reports, Facebook is something of a quick-browsing experience, where you go to see what your friends and contacts are doing, skimming through the News Feed, and then being done with that. Frustration with the News Feed itself likely is only reinforcing this, and thus Facebook is desperate to get us updating and engaging.
Facebook isn’t the first to jump on the hashtag bandwagon. Apps including Tumblr, Instagram, and Flickr have all opted to use the pound sign as a mechanism for discovery and connecting users to topics. Twitter’s simple feature has spawned Internet-wide adoption for its simplicity and instant-recognition.
While plenty of other apps and sites have began using hashtags, Facebook’s plan to adopt them signifies, more than anything else, that it has a news problem (gasp – no!). It’s been well publicized that we only see a small percentage of the content hitting the News Feed, and that all of our friends’ status updates are competing for attention from the increasing presence (and size … and type … and placement) of ads.
Search is remains something of a beast for Facebook. Graph Search still isn’t available to everyone, and isn’t built to find conversations that are happening in real-time anyway; while you can search for everyone living in San Francisco who likes Jay-Z and cooking, you might have trouble finding everyone in San Francisco who’s currently talking about those things via Facebook.
Hashtags could help solve the speed problem, while also making more content publicly available. Users are already inundating Facebook with hashtags (which is obnoxious, since they don’t function yet), and now these innocuous updates would actually serve a purposes, connecting users talking about similar topics. It would – Facebook hopes – prompt more people to make public updates because they would be more discoverable. Like on Twitter. Its all-public, constantly updating flood of information is able to engage and connect users at a higher rate than Facebook currently does, which currently revolves around pre-established social circles.
Introducing in-stream ads
Prior to the new extensions to the Facebook Exchange system, targeted ads were banished to the sidebar. Now, those ads are going to start showing up in the main News Feed (in the desktop version for now only). We’re already seeing all sorts of sponsored and promoted posts hitting this feed. While they have more information than the 140-limited tweet ads have on Twitter, the concept is nearly identical.
The reason is real-time
Many of the reasons Facebook is acting more and more like Twitter come back to its need to tap into the power of real-time. The Ticker was arguably Facebook’s first step toward this, but it’s become little more than sidebar clutter that hasn’t really turned into the engagement module Facebook hoped it would be. Relatively recently after it was introduced, users were even given the option to hide the Ticker. There’s also the fact that the Ticker isn’t truly a real-time feed: A Facebook designer confirmed in a since-deleted post (the statement preserved thanks to Quora) that this isn’t a raw feed and it is filtered.
Clearly, that wasn’t going to be the feature that brought us Facebook updates in real-time. Not surprisingly, the coming New Feed redesign will kill entirely or hugely minimize the Ticker.
Home is a huge part of helping Facebook realize its real-time aspirations, but of course the app suite doesn’t benefit iPhone or Windows Phone users – or even many Android ones. At launch, it’s really only going to be available to a handful of Android users. In order to unify that experience, Facebook is going to have to leverage other functions.
It has no choice, because real-time is turning into an advertiser’s dream. Facebook is fast, but it’s nothing compared to Twitter, which has caused brands to flock to it. It’s made it a huge platform for the social TV market as well. There’s no argument that Facebook is struggling here: During the Super Bowl, Twitter was mentioned in 26 ads (to be specific, hashtags appeared in 26 ads, but Twitter was mentioned in 50 percent of ads), Facebook in four. YouTube and Instagram each grabbed one spot. During the 2012 Super Bowl, Facebook and Twitter each took home eight ad mentions. Advertisers shell out big bucks for live events, and Twitter has cornered the live events market – and Facebook should be keen for a piece of that pie.
While Home will play a big part in helping Facebook introduce more real-time elements, so will the upcoming News Feed design (which, for all our sakes, we’re hoping will help solve the current News Feeds’ many problems).
The question is, of course, do we want Facebook to be more like Twitter? Marketing-motivated updates don’t tend to skew in users’ favor, but there is clearly an attraction in real-time information. It just remains to be seen if Facebook can pull it off – but you know what they say: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Twitter, you must be doing something right.