Twitter, There’s Nothing Wrong With Being A Social Network

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I just finished reading an interesting blog post by venture capitalist Bill Gurley about Twitter, a portfolio company of his firm Benchmark Capital. In it, he argues that there’s a misperception about Twitter in that people keep regarding it as a social network and pitting it against Facebook.

Gurley makes some good points, albeit ones that have been made in the past, about Twitter being an ‘information utility’, a ‘discovery engine’ and a ‘better RSS reader’ rather than a social network. Except I still think Twitter is a social network as well. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What Gurley is saying is that Twitter isn’t a social network like Facebook is one, because there are some key differences, and both platforms are being used differently. Which is undeniably true, but that doesn’t make Twitter not a social network, at least not in my book.

I have certainly been using Twitter as a social network for years, to connect with friends and coworkers and people in this industry that I may have never met in real life. I engage with them publicly and through direct messages, I share media with them, and I use Twitter as an identity provider for a variety of third-party applications and services. More so than Facebook, even.

(I’ll also note that Twitter just became more like Facebook and its Ticker in many ways, too.)

As Gurley points out, Twitter is used by plenty of people to simply consume information and news without even signing up or actively using the service (“you don’t need to tweet to use Twitter”). But increasingly, that’s the direction Facebook is heading, too. I don’t see how that makes Twitter a pure-play information broadcasting service and no longer a social communication utility, because the company certainly attempts to convert every ‘lurker’ into an active, registered user at every turn.

That makes all the sense in the world, because these are the people Twitter can monetize down the line, and the company has to turn a profit at some point in the future.

So why the identity crisis? What’s the big deal with simply admitting Twitter is also a social network?

Writes Gurley:

For the vast majority of Twitter’s next 900 million users, the core usage modality will have very little to do with “tweeting,” and everything to do with “listening” or “hearing.”

All fine and dandy, but there wouldn’t be much to listen to when there wouldn’t be any users doing the actual tweeting. And slice it any way you want, most people – at least not that I’ve observed over the past few years – don’t treat Twitter exclusively as an information broadcasting utility, but use it to engage with friends, family, coworkers and yes, people that they may not know in real life.

Twitter is not just about musicians sharing their tour experiences and work, politicians sharing their views, and getting news and insights from news organizations (or straight from journalists or field experts). There’s an army of users communicating in close-knit circles, and they shouldn’t be brushed off simply because Twitter doesn’t like being pitted against Facebook in the social networking category. Let’s see Twitter taking away the ability to send direct, private messages to other users because it’s an inherently ‘few-to-few’ (or even one-to-one) social activity.

Users would revolt, and justifiably so. Also, Twitter, read this attentively.

Gurley’s point reminds a lot about the time when MySpace was so busy trying to convince people that they weren’t a social network like Facebook but rather a ‘personalized entertainment destination’ or whatever they tried to call it. That always confused me, because MySpace was so obviously a social network, but one that desperately tried to reposition themselves because they could sense they would lose the ‘king of social networking’ title to Facebook. The attempt was unsuccessful.

So yes, dear Twitter management and investors, we realize full well Twitter is different from Facebook, and that you’re not necessarily head-to-head rivals. But the fact that you don’t appreciate your service being called a social network doesn’t mean there’s no significant functionality overlap lurking in the places you’re both heading to. You are both ‘leaders in social networking’.

I suggest you play to your strengths and let people call Twitter a social network if they believe that’s what it is, to them, rather than trying to fight those nasty ‘misperceptions’ out there.

Lord knows you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Update: also read Robert Scoble’s comment on this post (or on Google+).