Status Culture – Public vs Private and Why It Matters

[tweetmeme]I recently made the decision to stop feeding my Twitter posts into Facebook. The reason is simple – I continually get negative feedback from my non-Twittering Facebook friends on how I update my status. Some hated how often I updated, some didn’t get what “@” and “RT” was, some didn’t like that they couldn’t join in on conversations that weren’t actually taking place inside Facebook’s walls, and some people didn’t like how “impersonal” most of my updates were (I use Twitter like a shared feed reader a lot).

Not all the feedback was bad, of course – I don’t mean to exaggerate. I’ve gotten quite a few Facebook friends into Twitter because they noticed the difference in how it’s used and saw the value. No, my choice was because there’s a significant difference in status culture between the two platforms, and, because I’m a heavy Twitter user, I would continue to violate social rules inside of Facebook (and piss off my friends).

Recognizing the emerging differences in status culture is an important step to understanding how people behave on either platform and how we can shape interaction with good design. In this post I’ll offer some insights into the differences between Twitter and Facebook, how they change people’s behavior, and argue that the differences in public-ness and prive-ness cause fundamental and important shifts in how people interact and use each platform.

Friends vs. Followers: How We Group Contacts And Establish Relationships Matters

How we establish and organize our relationships makes a difference to how we interact on any platform. The design of the connection mechanism drives who we (can) connect with, how we connect, and how we display our (implied) relationships (and social responsibility to others). Makes intuitive sense, right?

Twitter’s got a fundamentally different connection model than Facebook that allows for both one-way and two way relationships, whereas Facebook forces a mutual relationship at the point of connection. The difference can be illustrated in the following way (I’ve split these into 6 different types A-F)

Twitter Relationships:

- Type A: I follow you, but you don’t follow me and anyone can see both of our updates. (Public one-way “Follower” = weak relationship)

- Type B (A reversed): You follow me, but I don’t follow you and anyone can see both of our updates (Public one-way “Follower” = weak relationship)

-Type C: I’m Private, You’re Public: I follow you, but you don’t follow me AND my updates are protected so that you can’t see them (Private one-way Follower = Weakest relationship)

- Type D (C reversed) You’re Private, I’m Public: You follow me, but I don’t follow you and you’ve protected your updates so I can’t see them (Private one-way Follower = Weakest relationship)

- Type E: We follow each other publicly, and anyone can see our updates/conversations (Public Friends = Stronger relationship)

- Type F: We follow each other privately, and only we and the people we explicitly approve can see our updates/conversations (Private Friends = Stronger relationship)

FacebookRelationships:

- Type F: We follow each other privately, and only we and the people we explicitly approve can see our updates/conversations (Private Friends = Stronger relationship)

As you can see, Twitter’s connection-creation model allows a user to create a large combination of weak and strong ties to other users online based on their own interests, regardless of existing real-world relationships. For example, I can follow celebrities like Diddy or Shaq around and send them “@” messages and interact with them, without implying a strong relationship between us (Type A & B). This stands in stark contrast to Facebook’s model which implies a strong relationship from the get-go – a user has to physically “accept you as a friend” before any interaction occurs (Type F). Across vast populations of users creating hundreds of relationships, these subtle differences create very different community streams and drive human behavior in very different ways (which I’ll cover in a second)

Side note: Andrew Chen has a great post titled Friends versus Followers: Twitter’s elegant design for grouping contacts that highlights some of the strengths of Twitter’s one-way follow design. If you’re interested in interaction design, I recommend it. Here’s a nugget from his post that illustrates a little bit of what I’ve covered above:

...[Twitter's one way follow model] makes it possible to have interactions with lots of people (@replies), but your time line only has information you care about, as you don’t have to follow folks you’re not interested in…[additionally] some profiles are inherently appealing to a cross-section of users – these include celebrities, companies, media content, etc. – and the one-way follow design supports all of these nicely…

Public-ness vs. Private-ness: How Where We Interact Changes What We Share And How We Behave

I had some great conversations with friends on Twitter and FriendFeed today on how status culture is evolving in the online socialsphere. There was a strong consensus that, although many of us started out using our Twitter and Facebook status updates in similar ways (i.e. for personal updates AND for conversations over ideas/interests), the cultural differences between public (Twitter) vs private (Facebook) spaces has shifted the way almost all of us craft and share our posts in the following ways:

- Personal status updates that are an expression of “self” and “real-life connection” are a cultural norm and are expected when (only) strong, private relationships (Type F) have been established and mutually agreed to as part of the system’s design. However, these types of updates are frowned upon when weak public relationships (Types A-D) are also included in the overall social structure. When someone builds an audience of users based on weak-relationships (Types B & D), being personal too often is seen as violating the cultural balance of “signal to noise” (noise = personal minutia).

- Status updates that are an expression of ideas and shared interests tend to dominate status culture when public, weak relationships are built into the social system. In these cases, discussion and information sharing is the norm and a user’s authority is built around participation and adding value. Personal minutia (in the name of adding value) is therefore kept to a minimum as a sign of respect for the overall community (Jeremiah Owyang has a great landing page where he explains how he uses and doesn’t use Twitter that is instructive).

In addition, when what we post starts changing based on the structure of our relationships (as shown in the bullets above) it also changes how much we participate and how we use each platform:

- Platform Usage Splits: In general, we conform to social norms and separate “personal and private” from “less-personal and public”. When discussing the differences between how they used Facebook and Twitter, my friends Vada Dean and Stephen Christopher said it perfectly in under 140 characters – we get a split in how we use each platform – one gets used for “self” and “personal connections” (Facebook) and the other gets used for “ideas” and “interests” (Twitter). While there is some overlap, the reasons we log on and use each platform are fundamentally very different, despite the similarities in the status functionality.

- How Much We Participate Changes: When expressions of “self” and “connection” dominate the status culture, participation (seems to) decrease; Both the number of updates per day as well as the discussion around updates remains lower. This may be because users have less to connect over (personal status is used as news that people keep up with, not discussion points). Conversely, when common ideas and interests domainate, participation increases significantly; Both the number of updates per day as well as the discussion increases. This may be because more updates are used as discussion starters.

While there are clear differences in the types of updates we send in public and private space, it’s always always always about increasing ambient awareness for the user – it’s just that the type of information and interaction that we’re looking for and expect to find when we log on changes.

Public Vs. Private Space – How It Changes Who Participates and Affects Adoption and Why The Differences Are Important

Most people fear Google and privacy is gold. In my opinion that’s one of the reasons Facebook has amassed close to 180 million users. For most people, not all virtual space is “safe” space where they feel comfortable interacting. When people feel safe, not only do more of them sign up, they interact more and share more of themselves, in more ways, and both the variety and volume of user-generated content (hint: data!) you get increases. For that reason private space will always win the revenue game (at least for the foreseeable future). The majority of people out there will completely opt out of ANYTHING public simply out of fear. The knowledge that someone you don’t know (or worse, someone you DO know and don’t like) can find you and judge you will always freak out the majority of people – because exposing themselves represents a lack of control over who sees and uses their content. Facebook has spent millions putting up walls to create “safe” space for it’s users and implementing elegant organization of privacy controls and THAT is why they’ll win.

For anyone interested in data-driven business models, Robert Scoble has a great post up titled Why Rob Diana is right: Twitter gets the hype while Facebook will get the gold that hits on some of these points. Scoble admits:

[Privacy] is exactly why people tell me they use Facebook instead of Twitter. So, Facebook has the numbers (about 180 million for Facebook vs. about 10 million for Twitter). It is also why Rob Diana is right: people will put more intimate stuff, like having a baby, into Facebook rather than Twitter. Only weirdos like me like sharing intimate stuff in a public forum and having conversations. Hint: for every weirdo like me, there are 1000 who are like my wife and only want to discuss that stuff with their “true friends.”

In short, the appeal of privacy is something developers and social media services need to look at closely, because it seems to be something that the majority of people want, and may be a prerequisite for mass adoption in the future on ANY social service. Most of the world isn’t comfortable yet with the idea of living in public, and my never be. Afterall, Facebook has shown people that control is possible and made them USED to it – and they’ve set the bar high for the rest of the services out there. It’s a cold hard fact: Google-protection and strong privacy controls so significantly lower the social costs attributed with adoption and interaction that most social services cant afford to NOT to build them into their systems because of all the potential users they’ll lose that demand it as a prerequisite to adoption.

Summary

I’ve made a lot of arguments in this post, so I’ll try and sum up with a few bullet points.

- How we establish and organize our relationships makes a difference to how we interact on any platform. The design of the connection mechanism drives who we (can) connect with, how we connect, and how we display our relationships. Across vast populations of users creating hundreds of relationships, these subtle differences create very different community streams and drive human behavior in very different ways.

- What we share and how we interact are products of community’s culture. Communities where strong private relationships dominate seem to favor interaction around “self” and “personal connection” whereas communities where weak public relationships are the norm seem to favor interaction based on “ideas” and “interests”.

- When what we post starts changing based on the structure of our relationships (as shown in the bullets above) it also changes how much we participate and how we use each platform.

- The lure or strong privacy controls for users may increase adoption on social services and improve the variety and volume of interaction on a variety of levels. This an insight that is important for developers of social media who are concerned with generating large user bases because they seek to build revenue streams based on selling data.

While this is a lot to digest, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on any of these points in the comments. I’d also like to thank Matthew Clower, Nic Luchiano, Stephen Christopher, Vada Dean and Mikey Reiach for their significant contributions to this discussion.

**Featured Image Credit

Published by Steffan Antonas

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11 Comments

  1. Very in depth perspective on the differences between Twitter and Facebook updates. I use twitter more and more as my feed reader now and I think a lot of people are using it this way. I can see how some Facebook users would complain if you put all your tweets on Facebook. You did send 653 last month.. haha.. Not sure if this is accurate, but thought it was fun. http://tweetstats.com/graphs/SteffanAntonas

  2. steffanantonas March 25, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    @Brent – You’re absolutely right about using Twitter as a feed reader. I do the same – Twitter is about information sharing, ideas and conversations for me. I share some personal stuff, but very little. The incline of my Tweetstats graph that you linked to above shows how my behavior changed – at first I started out using it for personal updates to update my facebook, which I did about once or twice a day (average for most facebook users). Then sometime in late 08/early 09 I started using it as a feed reader and for conversation and…well, you can see what happened – last month I had over 600 messages. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  3. [...] Status Culture – Public vs Private and Why It Matters (steffanantonas.com) Share and Enjoy: [...]

  4. [...] the physical photo directories were structured. Today’s privacy controls came much later. Had the relationship structure been different (where strong privacy is the default, and weak ties cut out voyeurism etc) the [...]

  5. [...] Status Culture – Public vs Private and Why It Matters [...]

  6. Okay, wow.

    Dear goodness that is a lot of information. You write more than I do when I post. (That's saying something!)

    Sorry it took me so long, but yes, as I said I would, after you dropped your comment on the Little Pink Book — I am here and did read. (I just followed you on Twitter, btw, lol)

    A couple things –

    1) Since the beginning of my time on Twitter I had this application called “Selective Twitter Status” and I suggested it and stood by it to all my friends and people I know who have both Twitter and Facebook.

    Well as of a month ago the stupid application stopped working…completely for me.

    I emailed it's founder twice, tweeted him twice and FB semi-stalked him to get help.

    NEVER once did I get a response and actually, I'm glad. (Actually, I'm still kind of pissed that I want to blog about it and call him out in public — but that's another story.)

    I'm glad because, like you, now I am paying attention MORE to my seperate social networks and NOT treating them the same.

    My Selective Twitter Status NOT working has been a blessing in disguise. I am more active and interactive on my Facebook and my status notes are as they were before pre-Twitter — customized, for my close friends and people I trust to connect w/ on there.

    Quite simple and satisfying really.

    About time I took my own advice, lol.

    2) Tweets and Status messages are very difference beasts. And as I mentioned above, I obviously thought it was smart to integrate them until I couldn't anymore.

    I find that I use Twitter for some life updates, fun, random and often important things. The real personal stuff, the real geeky stuff, or the real “me” stuff ends up on my Facebook.

    People who don't understand this difference, end up hurting one network over the other because their people just end up angry.

    You've made a lot of very good points. Well done and thank you for sharing your link w/ me :) It was a good read.

    1. Thanks for the long thoughtful comment. I've found the same satisfaction that you have in splitting my interactions on various social networks (Status and personal stuff on facebook, information sharing on Twitter and real-time conversations and group tracking on Friendfeed). Each one is good for a different thing and the context matters. I'm glad to see you agree.

  7. Very interesting post. I'd be curious to read an update on this given all of the recent (and forthcoming) changes that Facebook is making to further emulate Twitter. In particular the addition of @mentions/tagging that Facebook is now implementing appears intended to shift it's role as a private-strong relationship space to one that more closely resembles Twitter's publicness. I'm guessing it won't be long until the “each application has their own value and particular use depending on context” perspective that you, I, and many others have been applying will become less valid. The coming months should be quite interesting.

    1. Mark – You're absolutely correct, and I'm also really interested to see what
      comes out of Faceook's (obvious) push to go public. I'm sure they're
      inspired by a lot of Twitter's features that are working well – everyone's
      learning at this point so you can expect a significant amount of
      cross-pollination of features. Exciting stuff. Thanks for an excellent
      comment. I'm sure this is only the beginning of a long discussion following
      the private to public push.

  8. Very interesting post. I'd be curious to read an update on this given all of the recent (and forthcoming) changes that Facebook is making to further emulate Twitter. In particular the addition of @mentions/tagging that Facebook is now implementing appears intended to shift it's role as a private-strong relationship space to one that more closely resembles Twitter's publicness. I'm guessing it won't be long until the “each application has their own value and particular use depending on context” perspective that you, I, and many others have been applying will become less valid. The coming months should be quite interesting.

  9. Mark – You're absolutely correct, and I'm also really interested to see what
    comes out of Faceook's (obvious) push to go public. I'm sure they're
    inspired by a lot of Twitter's features that are working well – everyone's
    learning at this point so you can expect a significant amount of
    cross-pollination of features. Exciting stuff. Thanks for an excellent
    comment. I'm sure this is only the beginning of a long discussion following
    the private to public push.

Comments are closed.