Social networks enable varied forms of interaction between their users, through spectrums of openness, hierarchy, and discovery. Facebook and Twitter are the most used services to connect people socially, but bring people together in surprisingly different ways. Facebook’s strengths rely on easily connecting with established networks, showing highlights, and sharing meta-actions (like posting pictures or events). Twitter’s advantages lie in instant communication, building ad-hoc networks, and providing public and widely accessible information.
Why compare social networks to geographical networks? I’ll argue that the same openness, hierarchy, and discovery also applies to suburbs and the city, greatly affecting our modes of relationship. Suburbs span a large area, creating both silos of community and a greater privacy. Suburbs aren’t great for meeting people, but they do provide a framework for connecting disjointed entities to a center.
In comparison, cities move quickly and connect people through greater density. People gather at the local events or meetups, making new friendships from shared interests. Rather than surrounding a center, the city is the center.
The Chasm of Public versus Private
Probably the most often used word in a sentence concerning “Facebook” is privacy, a concept almost never discussed about Twitter. Many Facebook posts are marked ‘for friends only’, and some are concerned over the privacy issues with ‘mutual friends’. Conversations happen in response to a post and comments—very much in a stimulus/response methodology. While commenters sometimes talk among themselves in a post, a trend emerges: the commenters are either friends already, or there will likely be no lasting relationship between them. Compared to Twitter, responses to an original tweet may invoke conversation between responders (sometimes facilitated by the original tweeter), and at its conclusion, responders may choose to follow one another, building a network link between them where one previously didn’t exist and being a part of future cross-talk. Choosing to follow someone on Twitter denotes a more casual relationship than befriending someone on Facebook.
These human interactions mirror those of a suburb versus a city. Imagine the conversation on the Facebook post as a house party in the ‘burbs. The friend of a friend that you met has context per your conversation at the party, but you may have little connection afterward. And without much way to build a relationship between the two, you may never cross paths again perhaps unless you happen to be at your friend’s house. But Twitter is like meeting that friend of a friend at your local coffee shop that you three frequent. You can establish a few things in common, and if you go there in any frequency, you’ll meet up again and potentially create that new relationship. Not only that, but because your conversations are public, like a group of 10-15 people meeting at that coffeeshop, new organic connections will be made between individuals with shared interests much more easily than in the private confines of a home.
Crosstalk is a feature of Twitter where, if two people you follow converse with messages to each other, these notes will show up in your timeline. Facebook has a similar feature—if one posts to a mutual friend’s wall, you’ll often see this in your Facebook timeline. But on Twitter, conversations are natural—encouraging others to pipe in—as they are clearly public, after all. Twitter serves as an equivalent of a public forum, rather than overhearing someone’s conversation, as there is no expectation of privacy.
The Destination versus The Journey
Suburbs classically keep their gems along huge arterial roads, surrounded by seas of parking lots. Drivers often complain about traffic while traveling on unsafe roads, having to walk across a large expanses of blacktop, traveling five or ten miles from their homes to a destination. City-living people often walk, bike or bus a few minutes from their homes, to a small and livable place, built at human scale. The experience that can be enjoyable—or terrifying—like our interface through Facebook or Twitter.
Facebook posts are often post-facto—reflections, pictures, collection of thoughts—in which the things you see are selected by an algorithm, based on likes, comments, or how much a company has paid for you to see it. It’s prepared. Sometimes stale. May be non-chronological. Packaged for sitting on shelves in a big box store, staying ‘fresh’ for months. Twitter, on the other hand, has fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market downtown. The fish from the sea this morning (sometimes with a less-than-pleasant smell). Rather than buying a five pound box, you get just what you need for breakfast this morning.
Tweets are often not fully-processed, mass-produced packages. They have defects, or they don’t sufficiently capture an idea. But sometimes they capture someone’s first thought in the morning, or an observation walking down the street not significant enough to warrant a post to Facebook. And sometimes that thought comes in a series of three, four, or five tweets—the timing, organic nature matters, and gives a unique flavor that big-box chain restaurants will consistently fail to deliver.
Choosing your friends versus Befriending your neighbors
When someone retweets someone else’s tweet into your timeline, it’s introducing something new into your system. The tweet is reproduced whole, with no comment, and including the original poster’s avatar. At first, retweets can feel almost like a breach of friendship—similar to a friend letting an unknown stranger into your home. It’s not uncommon for new Twitter users to ask how to turn off retweets in their timeline.
This similar occurrence doesn’t wholly exist on Facebook, but people can share an item (usually with comment). Instead, Facebook’s filtering isolates you from unwanted intrusions. Your Facebook timeline’s stories are likely influenced from a friend’s likes or comments, or Facebook’s algorithms show you things it determines you may want to see. Getting that semi-random retweet from a person that’s not expected, or sometimes not particularly wanted, doesn’t exist. You can move further out of town to stop this (i.e. disable retweets from the retweeter) . You can put up a fence (blocking the retweeted person). But you live in a dense neighborhood which by default accepts diversity over homogeny.
Mapping existing networks versus Building new networks
Friends don’t let friends move to the suburbs. Why? Because often it’s a precursor to devolving friendships rather than building them. Partly the lack of density strains friendships, requiring travel to visit old friends (suburban or urban). People keep their friendships when moving out of the city, but the friendship structure is now virtually out of balance with reality. The same is often true with Facebook.
Facebook communities and friendships are descriptive—they exist to mirror an external friendship/relationship (school, family, acquaintances . Twitter communities and friendships are conscriptive—they’re often building a relationship that wasn’t there prior to Twitter (location based, interests, learning). The problem with Facebook networks is that they quickly get out of date, stale, and siloed.
Living versus Deteriorating
Twitter is the ever-changing city. There are always new people to meet (follow) and old friendships may lapse when it’s time (unfollowing). Time is a constraint. There is a limit to how many people, things, and ideas a single person can care about. Twitter rarely has the nostalgia factor that keeps so many dead Facebook friendships alive. Yet Facebook allows relations to persist like an old, dead mall that’s long past its relevance.
@ericmbudd on twitter