It has been a few months since Facebook launched “Subscriptions” – the social behemoth’s asynchronous sharing feature that means people can “follow” you on the service without you following them back – but what effect has this service had on Twitter? Has Facebook’s notable lead in user numbers meant that it is starting to eclipse the little birdie? Or have the two services found their own niches?
Facebook Subscriber numbers are already starting to overtake Twitter Followers of the same person, but I don’t think this gives the whole story. Almost a sixth of the world’s population are on Facebook, and that gives Zuckerberg & co a definite advantage on the numbers front – but the users of the two services can be very different, as can how people use them.
Facebook was, up until September, the place where people went to connect with people they knew personally – normally offline – a digital version of their extended social interactions in the real world. Everyone on Facebook were “friends”, albeit sometimes in the loosest possible sense – but they were general at least acquaintances. To see what someone else was up to, they had to agree that you were “friends” and they could also see your updates – “friendship” was a two-way street. Facebook is the place where you keep up with old friends and family members, where you share photos of family occasions and nights out, where your extended group of friends find out you’re engaged.
Twitter on the other-hand has always been an asynchronous service, where users “followed” other people they thought to be interesting, often without being followed back. People could follow actors and pop stars and see what they were up to, find out about their next TV appearance or what they had for breakfast. People also use Twitter to follow the friends that they are interested in their updates – and those friends follow back. As it developed, however, Twitter has found its real niche in breaking news and sparking comment. The 140 character limit means that people are concise and therefore convey a lot of information very quickly – that people could have huge follower numbers meant that this information can be disseminated quickly through retweets and the like.
Twitter was the place to find breaking news in 2011 with the Arab Spring, Osama Bin Laden’s death, and much more captured on Twitter before it reached Facebook or the traditional news media. It has also, therefore, attracted a different kind of user to that of Facebook. Twitter is unlikely to ever find the userbase enjoyed by its social rival, as it does not appeal to many and twitter.com is not exactly inviting to most. Twitter has become a tool for those that watch for breaking news and for those involved in the digital sphere – and has become a place for making new connections more that digitising old ones.
Now Facebook has added its Subscriber feature I see a general exodus of the Twitter users who only really use the service to follow celebrities or brands – they can now do just the same on Facebook so why spread themselves over two services? Twitter, however, will stay as the place to find breaking news and sparking debate – it will be the lean, efficient and focused tool for quick dissemination of information, just as the world has seen its usefulness this year. Facebook, in comparison is more like the slow lumbering supermarket – where you can find everything, all social content, but first you’ll have to wade through the ready-meals, snacks, and get stuck behind families with young kids.
Facebook already contains much of our social information and digital personalities – and I think that will only increase with subscribers. But it is cumbersome to use, slow, and and cluttered. It does so much from photos to games to Spotify integration, and that is to its advantage in user numbers – but those wanting quick access and concise writing it could never compete for exactly the same reason.