Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Google+

I've read a lot about Google+ this week but nothing that accurately articulates precisely how its model differs from that of Facebook and Twitter.

The fact its user interface looks a lot like Facebook has led people to assume the services are similar. This isn’t really the case – in fact Google+ is a lot more like Twitter than Facebook.

This post sidesteps the broad functional differences between the services (e.g. Facebook event management, Google+ 'Sparks') and focuses on the status update/post/stream aspect of things.

So let’s get started shall we?

Facebook

- Facebook is based on a symmetric model.
- Everyone you are friends with is also friends with you.
- Friends can be assigned to 0 or more ‘Friend Lists’.

Incoming
Your incoming stream (called your “News Feed”) is a list of all the posts of all the users you have as friends.

By default, Facebook filters this stream based on the users you interact with most frequently / seem to care about – though this can be easily turned off.

You can segment your incoming stream by Friend List very easily via a drop down at the top of your News Feed. However assigning your friends to these lists doesn’t have a particularly slick interface and so this feature isn’t much used.

Users can’t tell which Friend Lists they are a member of unless explicitly allowed to.

Outgoing
When you make a post, share a photo, link or video, all your friends will see it.*

It is possible to post just to particular friends or to particular Friend Lists but the interface for this is fiddly, unintuitive and clearly designed only for very occasional use.

How many people even know how to find this screen?

Twitter

- Twitter is based on an asymmetric model.
- 99%+ of all posts on Twitter are completely public and open to the web, indexed by search engines and Twitter itself.**
- You can go to twitter.com/<username> and see a user’s stream at any time.
- Users you are following can be assigned to 0 or more ‘Lists’.

Incoming
You can follow anyone you like, without their approval, and your incoming stream is a timeline of all the posts of all the users you are following.

You can view your incoming stream segmented by List. This feature has gained reasonable traction amongst power users making use of tools such as Tweetdeck.

Users can tell which Lists they are a member of.

Outgoing
Everything you tweet is visible in all your followers’ streams and visible on the open web at your Twitter page.

There is no way to tweet just to a particular List – Lists are purely to help you filter incoming content and don’t interact with your outgoing traffic in any way.

Google+

- Google+ is based on an asymmetric model.
- Users assign other users they want to communicate with to 1 or more groups, called ‘Circles’.
- Your interaction with other users varies depending on whether you and the other users have both assigned each other to Circles, or whether it's a one way relationship.

Broadly, Google+ combines elements of Facebook (your 'Stream' deals with people you do have a symmetric relationship with) and Twitter (the 'Incoming' area deals with posts from users who are targeting you with their posts, but whom you haven't included in any of your Circles).

Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Google+

Incoming
Your incoming stream is called simply ‘Stream’ and is an aggregated timeline of all the posts of all the users you have assigned to any Circle.

You can also view your incoming stream segmented by Circle very easily with always-exposed controls to the left of it.

Since Google+ is asymmetric, it’s very possible that other users will have you in their Circles even though they aren’t in yours. Any posts from these people will not show up in your Stream but are collected in a special area called ‘Incoming’, listed on the left below your Circles.

In broad Twitter terms, this is the equivalent of there being a special stream of everyone following you, but who you aren’t following back.

Outgoing
All posts on Google+ must be explicitly targeted. You can post to:

Public
- visible on your Google+ profile page
- shown in the Stream of all users who have you in a Circle
- shown in the Incoming area of all users you have in a Circle who don't have you in a Circle

Extended Circles
- shown in the Stream of all users who have you in a Circle
- shown in the Incoming area of all users in the Circles of users in your Circles ***
- shown in the Incoming area of all the users you have in a Circle who don't reciprocally have you in a Circle

Your Circles
- shown in the Stream of all users you have in any of your Circles who also have you in one of their Circles
- shown in the Incoming area of all the users you have in a Circle who don't reciprocally have you in a Circle

A particular Circle
- shown in the Stream of all users in that Circle who also have you in one of their Circles
- shown in the Incoming area of all the users in that Circle who don't reciprocally have you in a Circle

A particular user or users
- shown in the Stream of that user if they have you in one of their Circles
- shown in the Incoming area of that user if they don't reciprocally have you in a Circle

Or... any combination of the above.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that having users in your Circles doesn't mean you can predict how they are dealing with or if they will even see your posts - that depends most on whether they have reciprocally included you in a Circle or not.

Summary

Facebook, Twitter and Google+ all implement fundamentally different sharing models.

Google+ definitely provides something new but it does so via a model that (perhaps necessarily) is more difficult to fully build a mental model of than the other two services.

Both Twitter and Facebook offer progressive levels of complexity – Facebook Friend Lists and Twitter Lists are both power user-y features that the majority of users don’t need or use (though in Facebook’s case this is doubtless partly because the interface for doing so is both poorly designed and well hidden).

Google+ brings this type of functionality to the core of its service, requiring users to understand something a little more complex before they can even use the service at all. On the upside, it also brings a much slicker user experience to group management along with it.

Whether this added complexity will materially affect take up, or limit it to more technically savvy users is yet to be seen.

* 99% of the time anyway: privacy settings, posting on other people’s “wall”s, excepted.
** I’m ignoring people who protect their tweets - this is a niche use case and not really in the spirit of Twitter anyway.
*** It’s actually more complicated even than that: [removed: link now dead]