Facebook launched February 4, 2004. Twitter launched March 21, 2006. Facebook and Twitter as entities are now over a decade old. We’ve watched them evolve from small platforms with niche user sets to global staples in social media. There were competitors early on but most have gone away or been swallowed up whole. We’ve seen companions appear such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine, though none of these have been a true threat to Facebook or Twitter.
At this point in their existence, they are unlikely to face any major threats from the marketplace or government intervention. In order to face a marketplace threat, Facebook or Twitter would need to do something outrageous, like banning users indiscriminately, censoring, or subjecting user data to a massive breach. They’re also unlikely to face a threat due to the network factor; users are less likely to leave if their friends are still on a platform in question. Then comes government: most western governments are benign and don’t care to censor the web, so that won’t drive people away. Therefore, Facebook and Twitter are here to stay.
For Facebook, 2016 seemed to focus on an emphasis on the Messenger platform, their text-message replacement ecosystem. 2016 saw a focus on developers hooking into Messenger with their own applications and AI-run bots. These applications and bots are personal assistants that we find in Siri or Cortana taken to the next level, and they can be used standalone or in conversation with others. The sales pitch was that when combining natural language, compute power, and Facebook’s data collection we would rely on these to perform tasks such as booking a restaurant reservation rather than going to a website or making a phone call. Of the “normal” people that I have discussed this with, bots really haven’t resonated. In fact, Messenger is still just used for messaging. Facebook has your data; they want you to use Messenger in 2016.
Meanwhile, Twitter’s meagre highlights for 2016 include: no longer counting URLs or usernames in Tweet length, adding a much requested mute feature (allowing you to isolate yourself from words, phrases, and people that make you uncomfortable), and the continually falling share price of TWTR. It can be argued that Twitter is as mature as it can get feature wise since its claim to fame was telling stories in under 140 characters. Twitter’s share price is falling because its investors are seeing a lull in new users and corresponding revenue. Increasing Tweet length by offering exemptions is a no-brainer. All areas of Twitter have the potential of becoming a cesspool, hence the screams for a mute feature, though it came about 6 months too late. And the constant talk of Twitter being sold off doesn’t really help its share price. Twitter is treading water.
Diversity and the ability to adapt to changing conditions are two key pillars of the evolution of species on Earth. Facebook has diversity in its huge platform ranging from ads, to the news-feed, to Messenger. Twitter lacks both diversity in what it offers and has available to itself. Both Facebook and Twitter are lacking in the area of the ability to adapt to changes in the way the world works. Facebook works in its own echo chamber of keeping individuals connected and offering valuable content. Twitter works great for communicating with fans in the form of short messages, images, or videos. But beyond these core features both products have remained the same since their inception. The unwillingness to disrupt and change the social media landscape leaves them as old fashioned looking as Microsoft was when these companies were founded.
2017 must be a year of innovation and broader understanding of the world outside of Facebook and Twitter for both companies. Facebook must realize that their future is in the business of being a content aggregator for users. This means rather than relying on editors or an algorithm to promote news, videos, and web links they must rely on a user’s network for customization and choices. This also means not policing the network for items that are fake and removing them arbitrarily; the old axiom of buyer beware rings true, or reader beware in this case. Twitter also needs to realize this same issue as well when it comes to curating Tweets from followers. Twitter also should abandon the 140 character limit and focus instead on 300 or 500 characters and becoming a true concise publishing platform. Finally, both companies need to realize that censorship is a brutal fact of the world we live in. Should they want to be taken seriously on dealing with abusive users, they should design the service to be cryptographically impossible for posts to be censored or altered.
If a platform emerges that treats users as grown ups, serves straight links, news, and videos to its users, and makes it absolutely impossible to be censored then there just may be an avenue of competition that Twitter and Facebook need to deal with in 2017. Until then, expect the same slow bitter progress from these two social giants… unless they can be proven to be violating anti-trust law.