The functional act of constructing a tweet or a status update is very similar. Produce text in roughly 140 characters or less inside a single line text box and click a button. Voila! Even the stream based ways in which the text gets consumed look awfully similar. Yet, the more I talk with people engaged in practices around Twitter and Facebook, the more I’m convinced these two things are not actually the same practice. Why? Audience.
There are two critical structural differences between Facebook and Twitter that are essential to understand before discussing the practices: 1) social graph directionality; 2) conversational mechanisms.
Facebook’s social graph is undirected. What this means is that if I want to be Friends with you on Facebook, you have to agree that we are indeed Friends. Reciprocity is an essential cultural practice in Facebook (although they are trying to rip out the functional requirement as it relates to status updates, arguably to compete with Twitter). Twitter, on the other hand, is fundamentally set up to support directionality. I can follow you without you following me. Sure, I can’t DM you in this case, but I’m still consuming your updates. Yes, yes, yes, privacy settings complicate both of these statements. But for the majority of users of each site, this is the way it goes. Stemming from this are a whole lot of social norms about who’s following who and who’s consuming who’s content. It’s pretty clear that the Celebrity will get followed without reciprocating on Twitter, but there’s also a tremendous opportunity for everyday individuals to develop a following. It’s not just the Celebrities who are following different people than the people who follow them; it’s nearly everyone (except for those who think that auto-follow bots relieve social tensions).
On Facebook, status updates are placed on one’s Wall. This allows anyone else (among those with permission) to comment on the update. This creates a conversational space as it is quite common for people to leave comments on updates. Conversely, on Twitter, to reply to someone’s tweet, one produces an at-reply on their own stream. Sure, the interlocutor can read it in their stream of at-replies, but it doesn’t actually get seen or produced on their own page. Thus, a person’s Twitter page is truly the product of their self-representation, not the amalgamation of them and their cohort.
So, practices.. how does this affect practices?
Those using Facebook are primarily concerned with connecting with those that they know (or knew in high school). The status updates are an invitation to conversation, a way of maintaining social peripheral awareness among friends and acquaintances. They’re about revealing life as it happens so as to be part of a “keeping up” community.
Arguably, Twitter began this way, if only because the geeks and bloggers who were among the early adopters were a socially cohesive group. Yet, as the site has matured, the practices have changed (and I’ve watched a whole lot of early adopters who weren’t part of the professional cohort leave). For the most visible, Twitter is a way of producing identity in a public setting. This is where you see personal branding as central to the identity production going on there. It’s still about living in public, but these folks are aware of being seen, of having an audience if you will. Twitter also enables a modern incarnation of parasocial relations. Sure, there are one-sided relationships on Facebook too, but they are far more the norm on Twitter. I can follow the details of a Celebrity’s life without them ever knowing I exist. At the same time, there’s the remote possibility of them responding which is what complicates traditional parasocial constructs. Angelina Jolie could never see me reading about her in the gossip mags and commenting on her latest escapades, but, if she were on Twitter, she could sense my watching her and see my discussion of her. That’s part of what is so delightfully tempting for Celebs.
In short, the difference between the two has to do with the brokering of status. With Facebook, the dominant norm is about people at a similar level of status interacting. On Twitter, there’s all sorts of complicated ways in which status is brokered. People are following others that they respect or worship and there’s a kind of fandom at all levels. This is what Terri Senft has long called “micro-celebrity.” Alice Marwick has been extending Terri’s ideas to think about how audience is brokered on Twitter (paper coming soon). But I think that they’re really critical. What makes Twitter work differently than Facebook has to do with the ways in which people can navigate status and power, follow people who don’t follow them, at-reply strangers and begin conversations that are fundamentally about two individuals owning their outreach as part of who they are. It’s not about entering another’s more private sphere (e.g., their Facebook profile). It’s about speaking in public with a targeted audience explicitly stated.
As you can see, I’m not quite there with my words on this just yet, but I feel the need to push back against the tendency to collapse both practices into one. How audience and status is brokered really matters and differentiates these two sites and the way people see and navigate this.
One way to really see this is when people on Twitter auto-update their Facebook (guilty as charged). The experiences and feedback on Twitter feel very different than the experiences and feedback on Facebook. On Twitter, I feel like I’m part of an ocean of people, catching certain waves and creating my own. Things whirl past and I add stuff to the mix. When I post the same messages to Facebook, I’m consistently shocked by the people who take the time to leave comments about them, to favorite them, to ask questions in response, to start a conversation. (Note: I’m terrible about using social media for conversation and so I’m a terrible respondent on Facebook.) Many of the people following me are the same, but the entire experience is different.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched a bunch of self-sorting. Folks who started out updating on Twitter and moved to Facebook and vice versa. The voices they take on don’t change that much, but they tend to find one medium or the other more appropriate for the kinds of messaging they’re doing. One or the other just “fits” better. When I ask them why, they can’t really tell me. Sometimes, they talk about people; sometimes they talk about privacy issues. But most of the time, one just clicks better for reasons they can’t fully articulate.
Different social media spaces have different norms. You may not be able to describe them, but you sure can feel them. Finding the space the clicks with you is often tricky, just as finding a voice in a new setting can be. This is not to say that one space is better than the other. I don’t believe that at all. But I do believe that Facebook and Twitter are actually quite culturally distinct and that trying to create features to bridge them won’t actually resolve the cultural differences. And boy is it fun to watch these spaces evolve.