The Facebook F8 Developers Conference was today, and though I don’t like or frequent the service, I felt it my duty to tune in. As I discussed in my recent Ignite talk, Facebook has an incredibly huge and invested user base; it is changing the world, for better or worse. There was a lot of excitement about the unveiling of the new Daytum-esque Timeline, as well as new and more comprehensive relationships between individuals and the things they’re interested in. For example, now you can “read” a book or “watch” a movie instead of just “liking” them. While I think that both of these features are smart evolutions for the platform (I am especially happy to see the spirit of Daytum reincarnated in medium that reaches so many people) I don’t think either of these advances are as noteworthy as something Facebook introduced, relatively quietly, a week ago.
On September 14th, they announced the “Subscribe” button which allows users to follow the updates of people they aren’t “friends” with. On the surface, this may seem a small update, a slight twist on the idea of “friending”, undoubtedly inspired by, if not directly taken from, Twitter. However, I think it is much more important than it may seem.
Every other aspect of Facebook is an emulation or facilitation of some common, normal interaction. Your Facebook friends are your real life friends; the service emulates the idea of sending them a letter (messages), having a conversation with them (chat), writing on their wall (posting), and now thanks to the newest updates, listening to music with them and sharing information about various media with them. Zuckerberg in his keynote states directly, multiple times, that the experience of going through someone’s Facebook page should mirror the experience of having a conversation with them. This is all well and good, but it is ground we’ve all trod thoroughly in the course of our lives. At the end of the day, none of these things are unique and meaningful interactions that take advantage of the immense potential Facebook and its 750 million active users have. To clarify, when I talk about the potential of digital media and communication, I mean the types of interactions that the internet can facilitate that would not be possible without it. No matter how cool it may be to listen to music with your friends on Facebook, it will never be as good as listening to music with your friends in real life.
This brings me to Twitter. I have been thinking a lot about Twitter, a service which I adore and use daily, and why it has been so successful. It’s a stupidly simple idea with its fair share of technical problems, way more in its formative years, and what must be the most childish and silly naming conventions of any mainstream website. (5000 tweets later, I still feel like an ass saying “I tweeted such-and-such” and “Follow me on Twitter“.) In spite of this, the service has grown speedily.
Twitter is one of the only truly new things I can think of. It facilitates interactions that would not be possible without digital communication. It allows its users to connect with celebrities, thought leaders, and other individuals that would never friend them on Facebook, and in an intimate way no less. In this massive web of leaders and followers, truly unique conversations occur, interactions that lead to amazing things. I have made friends on Twitter, true friends, whom I feel like I know on a personal level. When Anthony and I traveled to New York for the first Photo Hack Day, one of them kindly and without hesitation allowed us to stay at his place, having never properly met either of us before. Connecting with people that aren’t our friends is what gives Twitter its edge. It’s actually taking advantage of digital communication’s potential, and it’s exactly what Facebook is trying to tap into with the “Subscribe” button.
Twitter is a hard thing to describe to someone who hasn’t used it. This is because it is not an emulation of some other interaction like Facebook and every other major service out there. You can’t simply say “oh, it’s like X, but online!” The closest comparison I can draw is everyone in the world (on Twitter more accurately) standing together in one huge gymnasium, huddled tightly around the most charismatic and entertaining individuals, casually and heterogeneously spread out around the average user. Everyone is talking, some almost non-stop and some rarely. In real life, this would of course be madness without benefit; no one would be able to hear anything meaningful. But with Twitter, everyone can hear. That’s the magic of it. Everyone can hear every other person they care to listen to. Even the quietest individual can be heard by the most influential expert. Some are serendipitously amplified into communities they would otherwise be unaware of, wherein they discover meaningful interactions and relationships. The result is an incredibly nimble and reactive community; one that can turn a passing thought into front page news and respond more quickly and effectively than any institution or major media outlet ever could.
These are the kinds of things our social networks should be doing for us. Listening to the same song in real time with my friend is a cool novelty, but it still leaves so much potential on the table. The subscribe button is a step in the right direction, but perhaps only in the spirit if competing with Twitter. I suspect privacy concerns are one reason that Facebook will have trouble competing in this space. Twitter’s brilliant and simple solution is that there is no privacy (save direct messages, which feel tacked on anyway). Everything said is said publicly, and eavesdropping is encouraged. Any “privacy” on the internet is an illusion anyway, might as well play to it.
This was perhaps a bit messier than my usual posts, but I wanted to get these thoughts out.