Do I Really Have To Go Onto the Face Book?

There’s been a bit of a disturbing buzz going on for a while at the edge of my consciousness that I’ve tried to ignore, sometimes rising to the level of a malevolent whisper: Facebook is winning the competition among social media, and you, too, must bow to its colossal power mwa-ha-ha-ha!

I have, you see, a perhaps irrational aversion to what I still derisively call The Face Book. Maybe it’s because I think of it as inherently narcissistic (pretty funny coming from a blogger, eh?) or tribal. Maybe it’s because I blame it for a general decline in the expectation of privacy. Maybe it’s just because I know what a time sinkhole it has become for a lot of people and fear I’d wind up spending hours staring idiotically at everybody’s photos of their children and dogs. Maybe it’s just a dumb prejudice. But at any event, one of the great perks of my gig at WaMo is that we have long had somebody else–our good Missouri friend Blue Girl–to deal with Facebook.

Now the malevolent whisper is growing louder, per this Vox piece by Timothy Lee about Twitter, my own preferred social medium:

Judging from the number of celebrities, journalists, and technology elites who are heavy users of Twitter, you might think the service is a big success. But Wall Street doesn’t agree.

True, the company has more than 300 million users and generated $1.4 billion in revenue last year. But it also lost $578 million last year, and user growth has been slowing down. Twitter’s stock tumbled by almost 25 percent in April after the company announced yet another quarter in which financial results fell far below expectations….

Twitter’s basic problem is that it doesn’t enjoy the same mass-market appeal of Facebook, which has more than four times as many users. The company is under pressure to boost growth and improve its financial performance. But so far, Twitter’s leadership hasn’t been able to figure out how to close the gap between Wall Street’s sky-high expectations and the company’s mediocre growth rate.

Many of Twitter’s strengths — and also its weaknesses — come from the fact that tweets in a user’s timeline are displayed in strictly chronological order. Any time you log in to Twitter, you see the most recent tweets from people you follow.

This focus on recency makes Twitter indispensable for certain kinds of users. If you’re a journalist following a breaking news story, for example, Twitter is by far the best source of information. And for people who sit in front of a computer all day, Twitter is a great way to always stay on top of the latest conversations.

That would be me.

But presenting tweets in a strict reverse chronological order can make the service less useful to casual users. People whose jobs don’t involve sitting in front of a computer might only check in once or twice a day. They care more about seeing the most important information than the most recent. Facebook’s newsfeed is designed for these users. It uses a proprietary algorithm to predict which posts users are most likely to care about, ensuring that you see your friends’ wedding and pregnancy announcements.

Long story short, because Twitter’s not designed for this broader, bigger audience of non-news-junkies who may only use it to follow celebrities, it’s never going to challenge Facebook financially, and may get squeezed out or gobbled up.

Now I’m by no means a Tweet-producing behemoth like Dave Weigel (123k tweets) or my friend Mike Walker (130k). Indeed, I try to stay out of Twitter battles, and usually only Tweet to promote my work here. But I do use Twitter to organize my own reading, which is why I only follow 137 people there. I’d say maybe half the links you see here at PA were of items I originally spotted on Twitter. I’ve definitely grown to be dependent on it, and as Lee says, it’s indispensable for keeping up with breaking news.

If Twitter goes belly-up because it hasn’t displaced Facebook, I’ll adjust like everyone else. But I fear that eventually I’ll be forced into the bigger medium with its vast number of people who would not be caught dead socializing with a political animal. Maybe Zuckerberg can invest some money in counseling or a half-way house for us news junkies who have resisted his brain-child but are finally shuffling along in the great cattle drive of 21st century life.

UPDATE: To be clear, I do not use Twitter for the wit-and-wisdom of 140 character tweets, but for the links to content elsewhere. It’s basically a customized news/views aggregator since I shape my feed pretty carefully. To make money, Twitter is gradually beginning to interfere with my customization via tweets thrown at everybody, but it’s not too obnoxious yet.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.