April 15th, 2008

Battle Of The Commodity Web Applications: It’s All About People

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Facebook has had an update feature similar to Twitter for a while. Now Facebook has a feature that lets users add feeds from other web services like Flickr and del.icio.us — just like FriendFeed. From a technology perspective, Twitter and FriendFeed are now reducable to Facebook features. Even if those two apps are currently more robust than their equivalent Facebook features, there’s nothing to stop Facebook from copying them in their entirety.

So are Twitter and FriendFeed features, or are they companies? Eric Eldon makes a strong case that many of Facebook’s younger core users will never user Twitter or FriendFeed because the same features are available right there on Facebook.

Ironically, Twitter’s and FriendFeed’s core asset — arguably their sole competitive advantage — is their people, their users.

Many Pownce users say it’s better than Twitter. Yet people stay on Twitter. Why? Because all of the people they want to “follow” are on Twitter. Facebook itself is an amalgamation of commodity features — including the third-party applications now available on other services through OpenSocial. Again, what ties users to Facebook is people — your friends use the service, so you stick with it.

There’s something about the market for social web services that reminds me of the market for packaged goods. So many of the products you buy in the supermarket are nearly identical to competing products, and the choices we make as consumers are driven by brands — brands are how marketers convince us that one commodity product is better than another. A key element of brand building is portraying images of the type of people who use a brand — either people like us, or people we aspire to be.

You could argue that people use social web apps that are used by other people like them, i.e. their friends, or by people they aspire to be (e.g. like tech bloggers? Hmmm, let’s not go there.)

Another reason why many social web apps are like packaged goods is that they generic, one-size fits all in how they position their utility and value proposition. This roll of paper towels. That bottle of dish soap. Who is their target market? Well, anyone. Who is the target market for Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed? Well, anyone.

None of these applications do any advertising or “branding” — their brands are entirely a function of their users. They compete with each other not through features or technology, since those can be copied as easily as CPG packaging. No, they compete through their users — since their users are creating all the content, and more importantly, communicating with each other.

Users of a product have always defined a brand — do you drink Coke or Pepsi? But social web apps take this to an extreme, in that their users are almost entirely their brands.

It’s an interesting question — how does FriendFeed compete with SocialThing, Lifestream.fm, and all the other “lifestreaming” apps — and how do they all compete with Facebook?

It’s less about competing technology, and much more about competing user bases.

Let the best user base win…

(Side note: For some reason I find lifestreaming an odd term — is this your “life”? Really?)

  • Scott, I think there are enough social networks at the moment. They have to copy eachother to have their users satisfied. Users are not willing to change too another network because all their friends are on the same network. But to have them satisfied you need certain features to bemore unique then other networks.

  • Blogging used to be just plain fun;
    now it's fun and complicated.

  • I agree, it all matters where your friends, or colleagues are. I have to admit that before Twittersync I was not using Twitter at all, and all of a sudden now I use it daily. But if all of a sudden al my contacts would move to another site, then I would probably go there as well. After all, what is the fun of Facebook without your friends? Cheers, Marc

  • Nick

    I'm sure that the user base is an issue, but this situation reminds me of when there used to be a healthy market for third party spell checkers and thesauri add-ons around Word, Multimate et al. The host applications were new and smart developers spotted opportunities. However it didn't take much work on behalf of the vendors to plug the holes and the users didn't need much convincing - in most cases, close enough was good enough.

    Once the main social platforms have all the main technical features and Open Social erases the walls, aren't we just going to end up back where we started except our "email" application will be more powerful and address book bigger?

  • My friends started using facebook, so I started using facebook, I had registered a year ago but never cared. Then I saw some people's updates "were twittering" so I dug up my twitter account, same thing, signed up but never used it.

    I am finding twitter to be it's own animal, some people twitter w/o fb, but I like the integration. If I see interesting tweets, I follow, I check out the profile site and if it looks like a person I'd like to know, I see if they are on fb. If they are, I send a note about what I found interesting about their tweets or site and a friend request. And I include an invitation to check my sites too and see if there's a match, business, hobbies or just common interests.

    So far it works for me, so I have no desire to jump ship to another lifestreaming or social network because I've put effort into developing these.

    And lifestreaming is a funny term, if you're always reporting in, are you really living?!

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