Twitter lately has been full of journalists critical of Facebook for not being more like Twitter — and critical of Twitter for being too much like Facebook.
Throughout the clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri, Twitter users have noted that their timelines are blanketed by Ferguson coverage. But their News Feeds on Facebook have been slow to reflect breaking news as it erupts:
The worthlessness of Facebook for news, in a nutshell: There have been two posts about Ferguson in my Facebook News Feed tonight. Two.
— Mark Coddington (@markcoddington) August 14, 2014
YMMV, of course, but compare that with the constant stream of eyewitness reports and smart opinion that Twitter's been.
— Mark Coddington (@markcoddington) August 14, 2014
— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle) August 18, 2014
Chartbeat’s chief data scientist, Josh Schwartz, weighed in with a traffic referral observation:
— Josh Schwartz (@joshuadschwartz) August 18, 2014
Photos, links to livestreams, and breaking-news updates were rapidly spreading on Twitter on Sunday night, while Facebook users were catching up on the day’s Ice Bucket Challenge videos. By morning, more Facebook posts about Ferguson were surfacing for Zeynep Tufekci, according to a Medium post, but by that point they clearly weren’t as impactful:
Many of those posts seem to have been written last night, but I didn’t see them then. Overnight, “edgerank” — or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled them up, probably as people engaged them more.
But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.
Lots of news isn’t minute-by-minute breaking news, and Facebook still delivers news to far more people than Twitter does (30 percent of Americans get news on Facebook, according to Pew, while just 8 percent get news on Twitter).
So why can’t Facebook, with nearly five times as many users, compete with Twitter when it comes to giving stories a place to develop and lighting a fire under news organizations that previously weren’t committed to covering a story? Why doesn’t Facebook have the “visceral quality… that can bring stories to a boiling point,” as David Carr of The New York Times put it?
Will Facebook add Twitter-like features?
In a Facebook post, Circa’s Anthony De Rosa said “Facebook is virtually useless for trying to follow updates on #Ferguson”:
Twitter, of course, is virtually useless for trying to do lots of things Facebook is good for, like uploading an album of photos or a lengthy video, or carrying out conversations — like the one De Rosa had — that are easy to follow without compiling and sorting each comment with Storify.
But his point is that Facebook, with 1.3 billion users — a billion more than Twitter’s 271 million — could marshal content generated on the platform into something more useful and timely for journalists and readers alike. The company doesn’t widely promote its interest lists, and the News Feed’s “most recent” mode is difficult to find, as commenters on De Rosa’s post mentioned. The news team has made some progress with the Storyful-powered FB Newswire, but that’s just one account. So Facebook still feels like a good place to discover stories, but not a good place to watch stories happen and evolve in real time.
The Washington Post’s Tim Herrera adds some numbers to the widespread anecdotal evidence that news has a long shelf life on Facebook. About half of the posts Herrera viewed over a 5 to 6 hour span were old news, he writes. That’s because of the News Feed’s emphasis on personalization; newness doesn’t seem to be a crucial factor in the mysterious algorithm. Often, that’s a big advantage over the reverse-chronological rigidity of Twitter timelines, where stories can drop off the screen in seconds. On Facebook, it’s easier to discover stories relevant to you that you may have missed on the fast-flying Twitter.
Pundits seem to suggest Facebook has an opportunity — even a moral imperative — to bring important breaking news to its readers and stop sacrificing timeliness for personalization when stories like Ferguson happen. Facebook’s Mike Hudack jumped into De Rosa’s post to say “We are actually working on it.” Maybe that could mean a separate feed with a more Twitter-like stream, or more robust ways of filtering content related to trending topics.
What about a Twitter that’s more like Facebook?
Also in the news: Twitter is experimenting with displaying tweets favorited by someone you follow — even if you don’t follow the account whose tweet was favorited. That upends a core feature of the Twitter experience: You only see what you choose to see.
Dear Twitter, please put an end to this fav = RT experiment. If we wanted to RT a Tweet, we'd hit that button. Thanks, Your users
— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) August 18, 2014
Twitter, don't be Facebook. There's a reason I don't use Facebook. I don't CARE what people I follow favorite.
— Patrick Weekes (@PatrickWeekes) August 18, 2014
Quartz’s Dan Frommer explains how significant such a change would be:
This automatic insertion of new tweets into your feed, however, represents a fundamental shift in how Twitter works. Removing some control could be a good thing—the best tweets you’re not seeing are probably more interesting than many of the ones you can see. (Notably, this algorithmic filtering seems to have worked well for Facebook, which has an active user base almost five times the size of Twitter’s.) But it’s still a shift.
The specter of Facebook-style algorithms on the horizon for Twitter has Twitter aficionados worried. As GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram put it, “Facebook has become like a digital version of a newspaper, an information gatekeeper that dispenses the news it believes users or readers need to know, rather than allowing those readers to decide for themselves.” If Twitter becomes a gatekeeper, too, or even offers that as an alternative for its users, will stories like Ferguson make it through?
Frommer argues Twitter has no choice but to experiment with ways of delivering tweets beyond the real-time stream we’re used to:
The bottom line is that Twitter needs to keep growing. The simple stream of tweets has served it well so far, and preservationists will always argue against change. But if additions like these—or even more significant ones, like auto-following newly popular accounts, resurfacing earlier conversations, or more elaborate features around global events, like this summer’s World Cup—could make Twitter useful to billions of potential users, it will be worth rewriting Twitter’s basic rules.
Meanwhile, there’s also clearly an audience on Twitter — an influential one consisting of members of the media — that Facebook wants to better serve by writing some new rules, too. Both companies are trying to muscle in on the other’s territory, and that could have a major impact not only on how news spreads, but how news happens.