How Twitter Beat Facebook At Its Own Story

Why the biggest story in the history of Facebook didn't unfold there. The only winner in the Facebook IPO was Twitter.

On the day Facebook went public, all eyes were on its biggest competitor. Those hazy months when the IPO was just a rumor, the giddy days and hours before the market opened, the hilariously chaotic trading period, the ensuing backlash and the discussion of what it all means happened on Twitter.

"I saw something approaching zero discussion of [the Facebook IPO] on Facebook," Mathew Ingram, a reporter who covers the media for GigaOm, tells BuzzFeed FWD. Peter Kafka, who wrote extensively about the Facebook IPO for AllThingsD, echoes Ingram's sentiment. "Almost none of [the conversation] was on Facebook," he says. "That said, I posted a link to a photo of Zuck hitting the virtual bell and that one got a lot of likes. But so did a picture I posted of the new World Trade Center."

Today, as the story drags on — today's perfectly tweetable headline is that everyone still invested in Facebook has lost money, which spells the end of the tech bubble — it's Twitter doing the dragging.

Twitter is where news breaks; Facebook is where news goes. This is something that members of the media, who live on Twitter and regard Facebook with removed interest, take for granted. The coverage of and discussion about Facebook's IPO may have been the clearest demonstration yet of one of the few things the service can't seem to do: Lead the conversation.

The only two times during this media frenzy that everyone's eyes were on Facebook, the site, were when the NASDAQ button auto-posted to Mark Zuckerberg's profile and when he posted an image from his (unrelated) surprise wedding. The first was a winking joke more than a positive statement about the power of Facebook — it's funny because the story feels too big for a "status update," ha ha — whereas the second felt right at home in the News Feed. Of course, I found out about both on Twitter.

When a huge news story breaks, it gets swarmed by a self-appointed group, sometimes small, sometimes vast, of Twitter editors which invariably becomes the source for new information. These ad-hoc expert panels practically race to move a story forward. You usually don't know these people, but you come to trust them very quickly. You probably even leave them in your feed after it's all over. This happens, I think, because of the nature of tweets: They have value even without context, and come to feel like a part of the stories they accompany, not just links to them.

In contrast, the modes of interaction of Facebook don't encourage story advancement, and carry a whiff of aggregation. The site, as is, is great at building after-the-fact, heavily filtered digests; while Tweets are like free-roaming units of information, Facebook posts live in the context of each users' friend bubble. It's not immediately clear, from my News Feed, where to go to hitch up to an unfolding new story. It can still feel like the real story is happening somewhere else, at least for the first few hours.

For what it's worth, what Facebook does with news is almost certainly more valuable overall — Facebook referrals to this site, and to most, massively outnumber visitors from Twitter. Breaking news isn't hugely important to most people, and Facebook is for most people. And in any case, Facebook is about much, much more than news.

Twitter understands this, which is why it's trying to replicate Facebook's news experience with its new weekly email digests and frontpage-style Discover tab. But Facebook is tuning its news experience to be more like Twitter, too: frictionless sharing increases by brute force the frequency at which stories get posted, and the ability to subscribe to people's updates without becoming friends opens up the possibility, at least, of runaway Twitter-style news mania. When it comes to news, the two services are drifting toward one another. For now, though, they're still miles apart.

While the Facebook IPO may not have changed Facebook, it helped make some things absolutely clear. Twitter is the primary source; Facebook is the filter. Or, to use an old-media metaphor: Twitter is the newswire, and Facebook is the hundreds of local newspapers that collect and print the stories the next day.

Fast-developing stories do matter, and right now, Facebook isn't very good at telling them. Even its own.

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