Meet the New Twitter, Same as the Old Facebook

Soon the only difference between Twitter and Facebook will be in name only. Twitter this week made a few big changes that, taken separately, are positive steps forward. The network is trying to grow beyond its devoted user base and appeal to the mainstream. But as a whole, Twitter is becoming more and more like Facebook every day.

Soon the only difference between Twitter and Facebook will be in name only. Twitter this week made a few big changes that, taken separately, are positive steps forward. The network is trying to grow beyond its devoted user base and appeal to the mainstream. But as a whole, Twitter is becoming more and more like Facebook every day.

It was an eventful week for the newly public micro-blogging service. First, the company quietly rolled out a new type of ad in the Timeline. Then, in a curious move, Twitter bought Android lock-screen startup Cover. After that announcement came a profile page redesign and pop-up Web notifications.

The changes seem promising, but they also follow Facebook's playbook almost to the letter. Twitter might just be embracing broader social trends and learning from its competitor's missteps, but the network risks losing its signature style, its innate Twitter sensibility, if it hews too closely to Facebook's path.

Direct messages are the new chat

Twitter capped off its week of change with a Thursday roll-out of pop-up Web notifications, so you'll instantly know if someone replies to, favorites, or retweets you as you scroll through your feed on Twitter.com. Super convenient, right? Right. But real-time notifications are something Facebook has long offered.

Twitter used a pop-up direct message as an example of how real-time notifications will improve the desktop Twitter experience--before, you might have missed a DM until much later--but the DM pop-up also resembles a Facebook chat. Strangely enough, Facebook is moving beyond chat by pointing mobile users to its Messenger app. If Twitter spun off messages into a separate DM app, few eyebrows would raise.

Profile pages get a makeover

Twitter's revamped profile pages made headlines this week because it's the first major design change Twitter's rolled out in quite some time. Some users hate the new look, others say the makeover doesn't even matter because few Twitter diehards even look at their profile pages. Everyone knows the feed is the heart of Twitter.

But it's hard to deny that the new look for profiles is very, very similar to Facebook's design decisions with Timeline, its version of a profile page. Both now feature large cover photos straddled by profile photos and centered posts bracketed by bio information and trending topics.

It's unclear why Twitter chose such a blatantly similar design, but my best guess is that the familiar format might prompt people who use Facebook and stumble upon a Twitter page to stick around. The unknown is scary. Facebook is not.

Making money off mobile

Facebook has proved mobile app install ads make money. It's the company's core way to make money on mobile--mobile ads bring in more than half of Facebook's total revenue--and has helped Facebook foster relationships with developers. Install ads are just the beginning: Facebook is expected to announce ways to help developers monetize their apps at its F8 developers conference at the end of this month.

Twitter is making money from mobile with promoted tweets, but the company only gets paid if its users engage with an advertiser's tweet. Twitter saw the potential to make money from app install ads, and last Friday began rolling them out in users' Timelines. The design of the ads slightly irritating--as you see to your right, they take up a lot of room in your feed--but this is the face of mobile advertising going forward. Twitter isn't the only company who realizes that mobile app install ads can be very lucrative. Yahoo is also testing a similar ad format to bring in mobile ad dollars.

Cover-ing your phone's Home

The Android lock screen has the potential to be intelligent and informative. Cover was a little-known startup that figured out how to intuitively display different apps on your lock screen depending on context. Twitter bought the company earlier this week with little hint at how the network plans to use Cover's technology. The Cover team said Twitter "believes in the incredible potential of Android," so it seems likely that Twitter will use Cover to display tweets or other types of information on users' lock screens.

But it's funny: Facebook also believes in the power of Android, so much so that the network already tried to wedge itself onto your lock screen last year with Facebook Home. Home wasn't a complete flop, though Facebook has lifted its best features and put them squarely in Facebook proper. The Cover acquisition seems like Twitter's attempt to succeed where Home faltered, but either way, the whole social network on your lock screen thing has been done before.

Trading places

Consensus among Twitter shareholders, analysts, journalists, and even the company's CEO is that Twitter needs to stop moving so slowly and start making changes. Quickly. But in its new quest to move fast and break things, Twitter is starting to look like a copycat.

Facebook isn't innocent. Over the last year, the company has added a spate of features that Twitter made popular: embedded posts, trending topics, and hashtags chief among them. Facebook seemed to step up its efforts to woo TV advertisers after Twitter's Amplify program started showing results. And history shows that plenty of successful companies crib features from rivals. Samsung and Apple are currently duking it out in court over which features can legally be considered proprietary and which are up for grabs.

Are Facebook and Twitter eventually going to join and complete The Circle? Probably not. The back-and-forth over which company is innovating and which is only reacting will likely continue for years to come. But if in the future we send Facetweets from our Twitbooks, well, I told you so.

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