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Twitter continues to confound me. Usually when I check it, I find lots of drivel or what seems like inside jokes or folks promoting their own stuff. Only on one occasion – when Toronto’s mayor was doing something ridiculous, which is a frequent occurrence – did I experience the feeling of tracking an unfolding topic, enjoying the real-time chatter that occurred as a result.

Surely I can figure Twitter out, I said to myself a day or two ago. And if so, I can decide whether Twitter’s for me and how to use it. Jane Friedman said in a recent podcast that it took her close to two years before she saw benefits. Hmmm. That’s a lot of time.

Trolling around for articles about Twitter’s strategy as a company, I found a few insightful notions and one very intriguing presentation. First, the notions.

Fundamental Purpose

  • Facebook is all about keeping in touch.
  • Twitter is all about tracking information.

Friends versus Follow

  • On social networks like Facebook the dominant concept is ‘we are friends’. On Twitter, the dominant concept is ‘I follow you’. Presumably you follow someone because they have something interesting to say or an unfolding event to report.
  • ‘Friends’ is a two-way concept; ‘follow’ can be one-way and does not require permission. According to one source, for the most part, following is not reciprocated.
  • Twitter is a highly public domain. What you post is out there for everyone to see.
  • On Facebook, you see what your friends post and comment on. Facebook also allows you to categorize your friends and restrict some content.

Content

  • Twitter is intended to be topic driven. Topics, identified by hashtags, trend up the more people mention the same hashtag. For example, #Sandy is a recent trending topic about hurricane Sandy. The most widely followed topics on Twitter are new – ie: today’s events, not yesterday’s. Suzanna Stinnet, a Bay Area blogger and active Twitter user, likens Twitter to a ‘global brain’.
  • Facebook is fundamentally social; the talk is more about personal matters. Many users post photos of family or friends, links to Pinterest boards or interesting articles they’ve found. They comment about the day’s happenings, what their kids are doing, a trip they’ve taken. They post links to places they’ve been which show up on a map. Users ‘like’ what others talk about which is a way to acknowledge your interest in what your friend are doing.
  • Twitter is limited to 140 characters. You can’t say much! Facebook has no such limit.

Reach

  • A few Twitter users reach very large audiences.
  • Such an individual can boost your reach dramatically if they retweet what you’ve written.
  • Some folks on Twitter seem to be focused on collecting as many followers as possible. It seems to me that they follow others with the expectation that those individuals will follow them in return. Someone who followed me the other day had more than 113,000 ‘followers’ and was ‘following’ a similarly large number of people. Impossible, of course, to follow that many unless you treat it as a full-time job.
  • Your Facebook reach is limited to your friends unless one of them shares, likes or comments on what you post which, if I understand the process correctly, is then available to their network.

Broadcast vs Conversation

  • Most tweets I’ve seen seem to be broadcasting something rather than attempting to generate conversation. The question is ‘who’s listening?’
  • What I’ve seen on Facebook so far is a mix of conversation and broadcast.
  • In either case, if you track 200 people, your feed will include messages from each individual, as they appear – a totally random process. A large number contain URLs requiring you to click for additional information – a time consuming process!
  • Twitter hashtags are probably a more useful way to engage with others or track an unfolding story. Topic driven as noted above.

Mashable Co-Editor Ben Parr posted a very interesting presentation about Twitter in which he offers the following comment:

It’s easy to see why most people think Facebook and Twitter are essentially the same. The core of their experiences focuses around profiles, relationships and a newsfeed. But if you dig a bit deeper, you realize that people use each platform for different purposes.

On Facebook, you’re supposed to connect with close friends. Becoming friends with someone means he or she gets to see your content, but you also get to see his or her content in return. On Twitter, that’s not the case: you choose what information you want to receive, and you have no obligation to follow anybody. Facebook emphasizes profiles and people, while Twitter emphasizes the actual content (in its case, tweets).

The result is that the stream of information is simply different on both services. You’re more likely to talk about personal issues, happy birthday wishes, gossip about a changed Facebook relationship status, and postings about parties on your Facebook News Feed. On Twitter, you’re more likely to find links and news, and you’re more likely to follow brands, news sources and other entities outside of your social graph. In fact, Twitter tells me that one out of every four tweets includes a link to some form of content …

… Facebook and Twitter are different once you look past their social media roots. Now it’s time to define the difference between a social network and an information network.

This may seem obvious, but social networks are about your social networks. Specifically, the focus is on your friends, colleagues and personal connections. They are about sharing personal or professional experiences together. They are about keeping in touch with friends rather than discovering news or content. Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, MySpace, hi5 and Orkut clearly fall under the “social networking” branch of social media.

The concept of an information network is a more recent phenomenon. Information networks are about leveraging different networks to distribute and consume information. While they may utilize an array of social media tools in order to find, curate or deliver content, they focus less on what’s happening in your social graph and more on information you want. Twitter may be the best example of an information network, but YouTube (video), Flickr (photos) and Digg (news) are information networks as well.

I’m sure Ben Parr’s explanation is better than anything I could write 🙂

I’ve stepped up my activity on Facebook recently and what I’ve discovered is a wonderful group of folks forming a loose community around historical fiction. Interactions range from purely social topics, to questions about writing, status updates on an author’s WIP, industry news and useful links. In addition, writers celebrate one another’s successes and encourage each other through difficult patches.

My use of Twitter is to a large extent limited to tweets about my blog posts. Occasionally I find an interesting quote or link on someone’s feed, which I retweet or a comment that I reply to. A few months in, I have 390 tweets, 133 followers, 96 people that I follow. With tweets coming in random bursts day and night, I can’t rely on catching an important bit of information as it comes through. Interestingly, I see many folks on Facebook who post similar items on Twitter. Count me guilty of that particular practice.

What should writers do?   If you’re a writer using either Facebook or Twitter or have a lot of experience on either tool, please drop a comment in the comment section.