Facebook vs. Twitter: How will you stream your world?

Facebook's redesigned news feed is visually more appealing and easier to filter, but Twitter has openness and searchability on its side.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

The future will be streamed. And streamed some more.

Earlier this week, Facebook unveiled a few notable product revamps: "fan pages" for brands that look and act more like regular member profiles, and a redesigned home page that emphasizes a real-time version of the site's iconic news feed. The keyword here is "streaming," encouraging an even more extensive flow of information with a status update prompt that asks, "What's on your mind?"

Needless to say, "What's on your mind"--which also allows the posting of links, videos, and other content to news feeds--bears quite a bit of resemblance to Twitter's "What are you doing?" prompt. So, especially in light of more rumors and reports about Facebook's spurned attempt to acquire Twitter, expect comparisons between the two services as means of ultra-customized media consumption to escalate.

When Facebook unveiled its redesign I predicted that we'd hear a lot more about the news feed as the new personal portal. That's sort of what many prolific Twitter users have turned the microblogging service into, too. Our Twitter feeds, after all, deliver a whole lot more than updates about what kind of beers our friends just ordered at happy hour: Depending on what you subscribe to, you can get ski reports, links to news headlines and blog feeds, mini-recipes, and celebrity-stalking intel.

But for all the talk about brands building presences on Twitter, Facebook may have gained a slight lead here. I spoke on Thursday to Dan Hart, senior vice president and general manager of MTV Digital, about how the Viacom-owned entertainment brand is using the new Pages to push out more content to members' news feeds. For the first time, brands using Fan Pages can set "status" messages, too, which MTV plans to use for news and updates.

"The status update function is effectively becoming a publish function, and that publish function is text, photos, video, a variety of media," Hart said, "and that media is experienced more as a real-time stream by a Facebook user, and the Facebook user has more control over what occurs in that stream."

That's basically what media companies do with Twitter accounts. And Hart said that MTV has no plans to abandon its presence on Twitter. "I don't think it's a zero-sum choice at all," he said. "We've done really interesting things on Twitter."

But Facebook's advantage is that the revamped news feed can handle different types of content, too: it'll have actual photos and event listings instead of TwitPic and TinyURL links. Filtering controls won't require a third-party app like TweetDeck. On the other hand, Twitter is obviously more open-ended. The messages on it are public and accessible, rather than hidden behind a log-in wall. As useful and innovative as the Facebook news feed may be, it's not searchable--and Twitter clearly hopes that its search feature, which it built in with the acquisition of Summize last year, will be a sort of secret sauce. (Maybe it'll even make money with it.)

Honestly, though, with the amount of buzz about both Facebook and Twitter as the future of real-time information, I give the advantage to whichever one can make all this content less of a mess.

On a related note, this gives aggregation services like FriendFeed a run for their money--why join an external "all-in-one-place" service when the same content is available on Facebook? FriendFeed is better optimized for longer discussion threads, true, but you don't hear a whole lot about marketers jumping on the feed-aggregator bandwagon. If anything, I see FriendFeed moving more toward a message-board role rather than another player in "the stream." But that's a tale for a different day.