My friend Scott Karp has a post up at Publishing 2.0 that is nominally about the addition of new features to Facebook’s newsfeed, and whether those features compete with FriendFeed and other social apps. But what Scott is really talking about is what I like to call the “Soylent Green” factor — i.e., the principle that Web 2.0-type services such as Twitter and FriendFeed and Pownce and so on are made of people, just like the new food product that Charlton Heston was so shocked by in the classic 1970s sci-fi movie of the same name (a comparison that I think Ross Mayfield of Socialtext was the first to make way back in 2005.

Scott’s point is that what makes a service like Twitter — or Facebook, or any of the other social networks — succeed or fail is the people who use it. After all, Twitter isn’t exactly rocket science (sorry @ev); it’s really just the Facebook status update as a standalone app. Theoretically, Facebook should be able to duplicate most of its features, or FriendFeed’s for that matter. But at the end of the day, it isn’t the features that matter — it’s the people. But why do they use one tool over another? Why did Twitter take off and Pownce and Jaiuku haven’t?

I’d like to say that I have the answers to those questions — enough for one of those classic Techmeme-bait blog posts, like “8 Reasons Twitter Wins” — except that I don’t. But I do think that answering them is probably one of the most important tasks a service like Twitter or FriendFeed or even Facebook has to confront. What are you providing that your users can’t get somewhere else? In most cases, it has better be community of some kind. That’s the Soylent Green factor.


Dan Blows has a great post about Twitter from a different perspective — he says it’s a lot like a playground (and no, I didn’t link to this just because he uses a Twitter post about me by Duncan Riley) A worthwhile point: the community you want isn’t always the community you get.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

17 Responses to “How Twitter is like soap, or Soylent Green”
  1. I pretty much agree with the Soylent Green theory of social networking (although, of course, features and performance play a significant role in attracting the critical mass a social networking service needs to take off)–and by that theory, you've got to give Facebook (or Google, if it wanted to jump in) the big edge in the Twitter-esque category. Facebook certainly has more regular users, and they spend plenty of time on the site, so you'd expect that with a modicum of additional functionality the Facebook status feature would take over and leave Twitter a faded, useless shell (like poor Friendster).

    But, as Scott Karp says, these sites aren't necessarily fighting for the same users, anyway. And those users who might use one or the other (like me) are just as likely to figure out how to use both–the TwitterSync Facebook app clones my Twitter messages as Facebook status messages without much trouble.

    I think the real question is whether there's enough general interest in Twitter as a standalone product at all. Obviously it has found a niche of passionate users, but I certainly haven't had much luck convincing most of my non-techie friends to start using the site. And, unfortunately for Twitter, if they were to expand their service beyond status messages, I think they'd be doubly-screwed, because at that point they're actually competing with Facebook. And I don't think they win that fight.

    Basically, I think Twitter's best bet is to dance with who brung it, figure out some way to monetize the service (see how I casually threw that in there, like it's a minor issue?), and eke out a profitable existence as a minor player in social networking.

  2. I have to admit to some trouble understanding the usefulness of Twitter. Maybe I haven't built a big enough network, or maybe I don't get it on some more fundamental level.

    What was wrong with email? Well, one might say, one isn't likely to email all one's friends (or casual acquaintances or people you don't even know) to tell them you are watching Battlestar right now. Well, quite frankly, I'm not that interested when I see that on Twitter, either.

    To be notified of new blog posts, why wouldn't I just subscribe to someone's RSS feed rather than follow them on Twitter? And anyway, as the recent mantra goes, the news will find me. Twitter just looks like work to me.

    And Jake has a good point about connecting with the non-techie non-bloggers: they're not using Twitter, they're using Facebook. You can do more stuff there, and you don't feel like you have to update every sneeze and hiccup in life to be participating “properly”.

  3. […] to not really knowing too much about it, Chris Brogan just posted about Friend Feeder tools. Mathew Ingram talks about twitter verses facebook news feed. Robert Scoble wrote about the important thing about […]

  4. Soylent Green factor …. I so like that phrase Mathew

  5. Every major language seems to have its microblogs these days…

    but all accept English language posting with an English URL included

  6. Every major language seems to have its microblogs these days…

    but all accept English language posting with an English URL included

  7. […] I think that Mathew Ingram hit the nail on the head recently when he characterized Twitter as the Facebook status update as a standalone app. Taking the best of social networking and stripping out all the […]

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