Some say they’re already competitors, that Facebook will kill Twitter, or that they are at least competitors for developer mindshare. They are certainly competitors for media mindshare – the lower half of this chart shows that news coverage of the two has become nearly equal.
Ah, but what about that upper half? Search traffic for Twitter doesn’t even register compared to Facebook. Will it really take Twitter 36 years to catch up to Facebook’s active user base? Is Twitter really even in the same game as Facebook? There’s a hint in the #1 reason that Todd Chaffee invested in Twitter: because it’s “open.”
I like to think of Facebook and Twitter not as direct competitors, but as classic heroes of competing ideologies. They represent yet another chapter in that old Internet story, The Walled Garden and the Open Future. In the primary exemplum, America Online introduced the Internet to the masses, delivering a “safe” experience that attempted to control all content delivery to the end users. AOL was eventually swamped by services that aggregated more open content (Yahoo), excelled in specialized commerce experiences (eBay, Amazon), and found massive monetization through key horizontal services like search (duh, Google).
The moral of the story is supposed to be that the open future always wins in the end. But the moralizers conveniently forget that the story keeps repeating itself. The walled garden is replanted again and again, and the open future is always in the future. And people make money at both ends, and people fail at both ends. Let’s not forget that early AOL shareholders saw the company sell at $182 billion, and let’s not ignore former heroes Yahoo and eBay struggling to remain relevant today. Amazon and Google look like winners today, but they’ll have their rough patches too – when the game lasts forever, the only prize is that you get to compete for your life over and over again until you die.
With that cheery thought, let’s look at Facebook vs Twitter again. Facebook fills the role of a classic walled garden experience, notwithstanding their apps platform, which seems more of a concession towards prevailing tech ideology than a coherent strategy. Twitter is part – only part – of the competing ecosystem of open web apps. Take Twitter together with Flickr, WordPress, WidgetBox, glue it all together with some OpenSocial and OpenID – and there you have a Facebook replacement in the classic Open Future: it doesn’t all quite hang together yet, but someday it will – one or more of these services will become a huge new business, and Facebook will shrivel to a shadow of its former self (though early shareholders will get a chance to enjoy a huge liquidity event before then). The open futurists will declare victory, but it’s just another battle in a neverending war.