What’s the Difference Between Facebook and Twitter?

Many of my friends and family have been confused over the differences between Facebook and Twitter. (Most of the confused use one and simply don’t know what the other is). There has also been a lot of speculation on the net about how Facebook has been slowly trying to take on twitters surge in popularity through their adoption of Twitter-like-qualities.

This write-up documents some of the important differences between the systems so that you can decide which is best for you and how you should think about using each one.

First the Similarities

The core part of both Facebook and Twitter surround “status messages” that you and your friends post to stay in touch with each other. Messages like “just got back drom the new star trek movie” will frequently start an online discussion between those you know about how successful the new film was as a “reboot” of the old series. More boring messages like “I just woke up” will only stir up the electronic version of crickets and will provoke little conversation.

On to the differences…


Facebook was designed as a web-browser based service: you log into their site through your web-browser to see status updates from your friends mixed with their advertisements.

Twitter has, since it’s early days, provided a programming interface (API) to it’s service. This interface let’s programmers write applications that check for new tweets, submit your own status messages, etc, all without actually visiting Twitter’s web page. The result is that there are many many applications and ways to interact with Twitter content besides just navigating to the twitter web page. The most popular ones tend to be the ones that sit on your desktop or in your toolbar and notify you when new tweets arrive.

Openness of the Data

By default, Facebook hides all your data so only friends (and approved game applications) can see your status updates and personal information.

Twitter is the opposite though, for both good and bad. It defaults to posting your messages publicly for the world to search through.

This, by far, is the biggest in usage differences. If you end up using both systems, just think before you post who your audience is. But more importantly, I like it this way. There are many updates that I post to both systems because I either don’t care or actually want them heard widely. The announcement for this blog posting, for example, I’ll submit to both services. I also tend to post smaller and more frequent comments to just Twitter. And much more personal comments to just Facebook.

Update Frequency

Because of the open API and extensive external application support, Twitter is more in your face 24/7 and integrates into your day rather well. The result is kind of a constant connection feeling with lots of friends, services and celebrities. The ability to tweet quickly in seconds is always present because somewhere on your screen you already have an open box waiting for you to type in your latest pontification. There are even application plugins that monitor what you’re doing and provide a tweet on your behalf (such as every time your music player switches songs). Many early tweeters make the mistake of tweeting way too much and let you know all about their third bite of a taco bell buritto you probably don’t care about. (They also quickly lose their followers). The better twitterers post only interesting thoughts and activities.

Facebook on the other hand is designed for less frequent status updates and less frequent review of your friend’s updates. Most users log into the site a few times a day, respond to the discussions, update their status (maybe) and play a game or two. It’s designed to be a “visit when I have time site” and is not designed to let you know that your BFF just put on her left sock.

But the instant notification ability of Twitter is what makes it far superior for service broadcasts. Many important services today have twitter feeds for major events (eg, the White House, the RedCross, CNN Breaking News or even Earthquakes that occur near San Francisco) so that you can be instantly informed about events happening at a given instant.

Twitter has also always had the ability to send and receive cell phone text messages. You can have the service text you when your favorite friends update their status and likewise you can update yours by sending a text too. Many smartphones have Facebook applications or web browsers, but twitters SMS tie-in is, again, designed to make you feel continuously connected (no matter how old your phone is).

Status Update Size

Twitter messages have a size limit of 140 characters, which isn’t much (note how easily it fits into a 160 character SMS message? Surely their choice of size was deliberate!). Twitterers learn to abbreviate and be witty in a very small space.

Facebook, however, lets users write multiple paragraphs about their current thoughts. This works much better for ideas you just can’t convey in a short burst. Twitter is referred to as micro-blogging, and Facebook is in between Twitter and a full-size, long-winded blog like this one.

Data vs Presentation

Another major difference between Facebook and Twitter is the presentation. Twitter is all about the content and the data. It doesn’t concentrate on presenting it in fancy graphics on their site (though many desktop applications actually look much better than the Twitter home page). Twitter just wants to bring you data fast and it excels at doing just that.

Facebook, on the other hand, is a complete package. It’s like the “Hotel California” as it wants you to never leave. It’s entrance hall is splendidly decorated with fancy graphics, profiles, pretty colored reply boxes, etc. Every link from Facebook tends to take you to another Facebook wrapped external page or application so you’re always encouraged to return to Facebook immediately. But, their web interface is a beautiful blend of simplicity and function (apple would be proud).

Twitter is also just status messages only with no extra features, while Facebook is constantly tempting you to take a new quiz or play a new game. Facebook’s interactive and highly-addictive multi-player games are wonderful distractions and suck up hours of your time. Twitter almost seems dull after having spent an hour trolling around Facebook’s site.

So which should you use?

You’ve probably guessed my answer by now: Both!! I have both a Facebook and a Twitter account and use them both daily. I love them equally, but for very different reasons. Facebook is a collection of conversations with friends and family. But Twitter has actually helped me make new friends through it’s openness.

The truth is, they’re very different beasts that serve fairly different purposes. Regardless of what Facebook does to become more Twitter-like it may not matter if the users don’t want or use the Twitter-like changes (I for one like the differences). If Facebook adopts many of the Twitter attributes of openness it will mean losing out on an important aspect of Facebook: your status updates go to your friends and family and people you trust.

So I suggest you try them both and hopefully you’ll even use them both. They’re free, after all. What do you have to lose (but time)?

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