Twitter's Simplicity = Success

Not too long ago, Jay Baer published a piece that compared Facebook to AOL. His argument was that Facebook tries to be everything to everybody, just like AOL did (he also used the metaphor of a tapeworm, which was kind of cool). He didn't really wager a prophecy about what the result will be, rather he used it as a barb, so to speak, about Facebook's attempted dominance of the social networking scene.

It's a good analogy, and one that I think holds true. But I don't think it explains why a wannabe omniscient web presence like AOL fell so far while another, far-simpler search mechanism--Google--skyrocketed to be the single most popular destination on the web.

We see this in other portals too, like Yahoo and Alta Vista, both of which were wickedly popular in the late 90's and early 2000's, but which also eventually stumbled while Google ate their lunch.

I wrote a piece a few years ago about the popularity of the Apple iPod. It was a result of a discussion that began at a usability conference. The gist is this: the fewer features an item has, the more usable it is. I used writing instruments in my analogy (I wish I'd thought of tapeworms, damn) and specifically pointed out pieces of chalk as the most usable writing instrument there is. They can be used on just about any surface, any of their sides can be used as the actual marking mechanism, and they can be used regardless of the age or dexterity of the person holding it.

Compare this to, say, a fountain pen, which is a pain in the butt to write with, is delicate and breaks easily, and frankly can be used adeptly by few people. But, the trade off is this: fountain pens are elegant and good looking, and create (in the right hands) beautiful writing. Chalk could never be used in a legal setting, even though it's easier to use (in other words, a piece of chalk can never be a fountain pen).

Twitter 3rd party app useMy argument was and still is that the iPod resembles a piece of chalk in that it really does little by itself. However, what made it usable to so many was that it relied on a variety of add-ons (either the physical type, like external speakers or consoles or the virtual, like apps) to create individualized functionality. The more add-ons or features of a product, the more limited its usability. So, if you create a simple product that allows the customer to individualize it as they see fit, you'll increase the usability and actually broaden your customer base. And in fact, that's what Twitter is trying to do--expand the verticle potential expansion through 3rd party apps (which it signaled by telling app developers to focus on apps other than clients).

So where does that leave the conversation about Facebook, and what I see as the iPod equivalent--Twitter? Simply put, Facebook is like AOL, just like Jay Bear said. It has a ton of functions that are forced on you whether you want them or not. And because it tries to be the everything to everybody, it will eventually be the nothing to anybody--except those very very late adapters comfortable with what they have and refuse change (hey, some people still use AOL).

As more 3rd party apps and functions expand its potential use (but are still options to its users) I think Twitter will eventually overtake Facebook, just like Google overtook AOL, and just like the iPod became such a dominant piece of technology: through their base simplicity but almost limitless expansion potential. In other words, when Twitter gets to the point where we can give it all of the functions of Facebook, then I think that's the point we'll see it overtake the tapeworm.

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