Why Facebook Works for All, Twitter for Some

It finally makes sense to me.

On Friday evening I was in Los Angeles visiting my sister. We were at a restaurant, chatting away about life, when my sister ebulliently announced that she wanted to “Tweet about our meal.” She pulled out her iPhone, opened up the Twitter application and then proceeded to click around aimlessly trying to figure out how to send a new Twitter message. I quickly turned into a scientist in a lab and sat inquisitively watching her navigate Twitter. I didn’t offer any guidance, although she clearly needed it.

I should note that my sister is not technologically inept. She has the typical digital toolbox of modern gadgets at her disposal: iPhone, iPad, laptop, digital camera. Like everyone else in my family, she is also a religious Facebook user, uploading pictures of her kids and updating her status regularly, often from her mobile phone.

And, like my family, she never really took to Twitter. When I asked her last year why she rarely Tweeted, she said, “Twitter is too confusing.”

That complaint, which I have often heard from others who work outside the technology industry, never made sense to me. That is, until now.

At dinner, I eventually explained that the button in the top right corner of the Twitter application is used to create a new message. Pressing it, my sister began writing, “I am loving my date night with my little brother…” and then she stopped.

“How do I include your name in the Tweet?” she asked me. “Is it the @ symbol, then a space, then your name?” I explained that the @ symbol couldn’t have a space, and that she had to write my Twitter username, not just my given name.

On Facebook, if someone wants to tag another person — say their brother at dinner — they just start writing the name and Facebook figures out the rest using an algorithm that understands names. In comparison, on Twitter, people have to understand @ symbols, hashtags and other strange intricacies of the service. These features make Twitter a great tool for many, but not for all.

Seeing my sister navigate Twitter, I realized why it was so confusing to so many. For someone like me with a programming background who grew up using computers, adding an @ symbol to someone’s name is easy. For someone who did not, like 90 percent of America, it just doesn’t make sense. Our brain is not forced to do this in real life, why should it in digital life?

The day before my Twitter experiment with my sister, I was in San Francisco covering Facebook’s F8 conference. During the event, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, told attendees that on a given day the week before, 500 million people had logged into Facebook on a single day. That’s a staggering number by any comparison, but compared with Twitter, it’s like Little League baseball next to the World Series.

Earlier this month Dick Costolo, Twitter’s chief executive, said the company now had 100 million active users, 50 million of which actually Tweet; the rest sit and watch.

 

For me, Twitter is the most important service on the Web; I use it religiously and obsessively. But in comparison to Facebook’s huge number of active users, I’m part of the minority.

Of course a start-up doesn’t fall on the sword of a single @ symbol. There are other reasons people prefer Facebook over Twitter, including its integration with hundreds of thousands of Web sites, its photo features, news feed, connections with others, and more.

But if Twitter hopes to grow at the pace of Facebook, it will have to figure out how to stop thinking in @ symbols, and start thinking like my sister.

The original post can be found here.

Via The NYTimes Bits Blog.

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