Facebook and Twitter Are in a Race to Become Each Other

Social giants keep ripping each other off

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It’s hard to keep track of how many features social media rivals Facebook and Twitter have lifted from each other over the years. Facebook, originally centered around conversations in private networks, now boasts hashtags and trending topics to let people dive into global conversations. Twitter, which began with as a simple, text-based stream of 140-character posts, now fills users’ timelines with photos, videos and threaded conversations that are not in chronological order. The wide gulf between these two social networks is rapidly receding.

The latest sign of this convergence is a redesign of profile pages that Twitter is currently testing among a select number of users. The new profiles, first reported by Mashable, appear to take more than a little inspiration from Facebook. The splashy cover photos and large, visual cards for individual tweets evoke the timeline profiles that Facebook has been using since 2011. It’s unclear whether the new template will ever see a wide release—Twitter publicly experiments with new features constantly—but CEO Dick Costolo has promised that Twitter will incorporate more visual elements in the future.

This liberal borrowing from competitors is to be expected, analysts say. “Feature copying is a grand old pastime in Silicon Valley,” says Brian Blau, research director in consumer technologies at Gartner. “Someone’s going to invent a user interface or some sort of engagement mechanic that just clicks with people. And that, just like a lot of other things that happen in the technology marketplace, is going to get copied.”

For Facebook, which has a 1.23 billion-strong user base that dwarfs Twitter’s 241 million users, the new features are likely a defensive maneuver. The company wants to ensure users and advertisers don’t need to go to Twitter to to converse about events happening in real-time. In September the company began sharing data with TV networks detailing the social chatter around their programming. And just last month the social network rolled out trending topics, which identify current stories and news events that are being widely discussed on Facebook. Earlier features inspired by Twitter include hashtags and the ability to mention other users with the @ symbol.

Twitter, meanwhile, wants to rapidly grow its user base, so it makes sense to imitate the most popular social network on Earth. Threaded conversations and images placed directly in user feeds, both introduced to Twitter late in 2013, are clearly features aimed at making the site more understandable to Facebook’s audience. “The Facebook interface, it’s very clean and very focused on photos and videos and big images,” says Debra Williamson, the principal social media analyst at eMarketer. “The Twitter interface by comparison is very dense and very hard to get through. By making changes to its design, I think Twitter will become more appealing and more friendly to the average user.”

Of course, the two companies are competing not just for users but also for a finite number of advertising dollars. On this front, their appeal is still very different. Facebook has massive reach and a trove of data about all its members that allows for targeted ads. Twitter doesn’t even know every user’s real name, but it allows brands an opportunity to engage with consumers in real time. Because most people use Twitter as a public network, marketing messages also feel less invasive than on Facebook. There’s never been an ad on Facebook that got the buzz of Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark tweet during last year’s Super Bowl, or Arby’s tweet about Pharrell during the Grammy’s.

So far, though, Facebook’s reach is easily trumping Twitter’s engagement. Facebook pulled in more than $2.3 billion in advertising revenue in the fourth quarter of 2013. Twitter’s haul, $220 million, was less than 10 percent of that, despite having about 20 percent of Facebook’s user base. Twitter’s  advantage is that it’s already a mobile-first business, pulling in more than 75 percent of its ad revenue via mobile, compared to Facebook’s 53 percent in the most recent quarter.

Are the two sites likely to converge to the point they become redundant? Analysts say that’s unlikely, partially because their users wouldn’t stand for it. Williamson says Facebook may have a hard time engaging users with its new trending features because people come to the site to interact with friends, not strangers. Twitter, meanwhile, risks alienating the power users that drive much of its appeal if it over-complicates its interface.

Inevitably, though, these companies aren’t going to stand still. They’ll continue to try to find new features that appeal to their audiences, which means more instances of tech deja vu in the future.  “The name of the game is providing as many things as your audience wants as organically as possible,” says Nora Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “If they can do multiple things in one place, you’re going to win the war.”