Posted by: Frank | September 12, 2009

Different Social Networks

Much evolution has occurred with communicating via the Web. About a decade ago I learned about a new thing called weblogs, which provide an easy way to write and publish information on the Web. Back then the social aspects of a weblog were with cross-linking between weblogs. If I read something on someone else’s weblog that I wanted to comment on, I would write that comment on my weblog, with a link back to the post on the weblog that I am commenting on. Tracebacks were then created as a way for the writer of the original blog post to know that someone had linked to their post, providing a way (usually via an e-mail) for that writer to go and read the comment and perhaps write another comment in another blog post, and thus the conversation would flow back and forth.

Google determined that by counting the number of links coming in to a blog post they could gauge the interest in that post and give it a weight for interest and/or credibility. Content with a higher number of incoming links would receive a higher Google search rating and appear higher in a Google search. Knowledge of how Google values inbound links has lead to spam blogs and weblog comment spam, all targeted at gaming Google into increasing a web site’s search rating.

Back then some weblogs had the ability for comments, and there was debate on whether or not that was a good thing. Weblog commenting harkened back to Internet newsgroups and web-based message boards along with its good, threaded discussions, and bad, flame wars. For some weblog writers, comments added more that they had to manage on their web site, and that issue increased exponentially when weblog spamming was “discovered.” Fortunately tools have been developed that help filter out spam so that most weblogs today support comments. Along with the spam filtering that WordPress provides for this site, I moderate comment posts for further protection against spam.

The communication aspects of a weblog center around the content of the weblog post written by the writer of the weblog. Whether its an essay, like this post, or a simple list of links to cool things found on the Web, any discussion that occurs is around the content of the weblog. From weblogs evolved what is now referred to as social media and/or social networks. Sites like MySpace and Facebook built on the technology of weblogs the idea moving the conversation from the content of a web page to about the owner of the web page, and provided ways for people reading that owner’s “profile” to start a conversation about anything, not necessarily related to the content of a weblog post. The other key aspect is that while weblogs are simply pages published on the Web for anyone to read, these social networks limit who can see a person’s profile to individuals that person identifies.

While weblogs are easily understood by writers, and they were essentially created for writers, the value of weblogs are not understood by most people. Why spend the time writing something to be read by anyone in the world that I don’t know? On the other hand, most people understand the idea of random conversations that go on between a circle of friends. It’s not unlike the conversations that occur amongst friends before and throughout the school or work day, or the conversations that start up in a bar. The conversations don’t take place with anyone that will listen, rather they occur between people who know each other.

So we come now to Facebook and Twitter which are two different communication tools. Facebook is a social network and the only people that I interact with and see my information in Facebook are the people that I know. Because Facebook makes sense to the majority of people, many people who I have known through the years have signed up and become my friends. I have 118 friends in Facebook, many are high school and college classmates that I lost contact with over the years because we are located around the world, but with Facebook we have been able to reconnect and reestablish friendships. Most of these friends wouldn’t write a weblog or use Twitter, but spend a significant amount of time on Facebook.

Twitter is really much like a weblog in that what I write in Twitter can be read by anyone on the Web. Twitter provides tools to make it easier for one to follow anyone that posts something on Twitter. Like weblogs, people most often focus on the part of Twitter that “broadcasts” information on the Web and wonder why anyone would want to, like I just did, tweet that I am having problems with the Genius feature in iTunes 9. “Who cares?” is the thought. However, the real value of Twitter is in following people or services that you are interested in. I have 424 people following me in Twitter, and I don’t know most of those people. I follow 73 people or services and while some of those people I do know personally, many, like Amy Grant, I know of. The people that I follow provide me information that I am interested in, for example from Twitter last night I learned that the Space Shuttle was landing in California in about an hour and I decided to watch the landing on NASA TV on the Web. The key with Twitter is to only follow people that provide what you are interested in knowing, and the big difference between Twitter and Facebook is that you can unfollow someone in Twitter and they will probably never know, while unfriending someone in Facebook is known to both parties.

Pundits who comment on social networks have written much about how Facebook is trying to be more like Twitter and vice versa. In my opinion thinking of the two in the same way is a mistake. Twitter excels at being a web-based broadcast tool for those who want to broadcast information and provide it for those who want to “tune-in” to their broadcast, not unlike ham radio operators. Facebook excels by providing a closed environment for socialization amongst friends or colleagues. In my own experiment with integrating the two, I have observed the differences and the jarring affect caused by merging them.

Twitter provides an interface to Facebook so that for people who use the interface, when they post something in Twitter that same post appears in the person’s Facebook status. The idea is to provide one place, Twitter, for posting “status” information that in turn is published in multiple places. While the interface is convenient for the writer, it creates confusion amongst that person’s Facebook friends. Often I would post something related to what I was doing with computers on Twitter that I thought is interesting, but that would only be uninteresting for confusing for my Facebook friends. After receiving comments in Facebook along the lines of “what they hell are you talking about, Frank?” I decide to quit using the interface after realizing that the Twitter and Facebook audiences are completely different. You wouldn’t start up a conversation with a friend in a bar about something totally unrelated to or unknown by that friend, or you would at least provide some context first, and it’s hard to provide context in a 140 character tweet.

So, my advice to anyone trying to look at Twitter and Facebook through the same lenses is to stop because they aren’t the same. While they do a similar thing they involve different groups of people, and I think trying to make one more like the other in turn diminishes the value of both. If you want to follow me on Twitter, you will find me at http://www.twitter.com/frankm. If you are a friend and on Facebook, you can initiate contact with me at http://www.facebook.com/frank.mcpherson.

P.S. The difference between a weblog and Twitter should be obvious. More words, and more links.

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