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The Difference Between Facebook and Twitter: Twitter Is Lonely for New Users

Twitter isn't the most welcoming place on the Internet.

Facebook / Twentieth Century Fox

Twitter’s product needs help.

Wednesday was Twitter’s Q4 earnings and it was yet another quarter where a Twitter CEO, this time Jack Dorsey, said the company had a growth problem, and that it can be fixed with product improvements. Dorsey wants Twitter to be the go-to place for interactions around live events. He wants anyone watching the Super Bowl, for example, to use Twitter as the connective tissue to chat with others watching the Super Bowl.

Twitter already houses a lot of these discussions, but here’s something ironic. Despite an anonymous, public atmosphere that’s intended to encourage conversation, Twitter’s product is actually hindering people from doing what social networks are supposed to do best: Connect people.

The simplest reason Facebook has built a massive gap between the two companies over the past three years is that you don’t feel alone on Facebook.

It’s easy to find connections because everyone you’ve ever met and their mother is already on the social network. (Seriously, all my friend’s moms have Facebook accounts.) Posting isn’t intimidating because you know who’s going to see it (your approved friends), and you’re almost always guaranteed some kind of feedback on what you share. It may be a “pity Like” from your cousin or your college roommate, but I can’t recall ever seeing a Facebook post that didn’t have at least one like or comment. I don’t care who you are, social validation feels good.

Twitter, on the other hand, is lonely, especially for new users. Unless you’re a politician or a celebrity, signing up for Twitter probably means spending your first few days on the service (if not weeks or months) with close to zero followers. Tweeting into a black hole is not fun. Finding relevant conversations is not easy, and venturing into strangers’ conversations takes courage.

It’s still too hard to find people to follow when you first sign up on Twitter. The company has made it easier to follow celebrities and media organizations you might want to hear from, but finding people you might actually interact with is a massive challenge the company still hasn’t figured out. I see engagement-less tweets all the time.

These things hurt Twitter’s growth because they push people away before they ever see benefit from the platform. That’s why, as of two years ago, nearly a billion people had signed up for Twitter, most of whom never stuck around. (The numbers of deserters is probably much higher today.)

The easiest way to fix this problem is to fix Twitter’s feed, which does a great job funneling in a constant stream of live updates and a horrible job helping your tweets get seen. I have 11,000 followers, people I assume follow me because they want to see what I’m tweeting. I tweeted 22 times last week, and my tweets were seen, on average, 3,500 times apiece. (This includes one super-popular tweet that got lots of views thanks to a retweet from an NFL player with a big following.)

In other words, my tweets only reached an audience about 30 percent the size of my follower base. Yes, this also happens on Facebook, but at least you feel like people see your content thanks to “Likes” and comments.

Twitter is trying to fix this problem. It’s adding an algorithm to its feed to help you find tweets that you might otherwise miss, and it’s doing away with some of its wonky rules around conversations that make it hard to connect with others. It’s trying to curb harassment and bullying, a chronic problem that has made many of its users feel unwelcome over the years. It’s also why Twitter replaced the Favorite button with a “Like” button — it seems like a small fix, but the company claims it’s working.

People like to argue that you don’t have to tweet in order to get value from Twitter and I agree with that. But growing the user base will probably rely on getting people connected online with people they care about offline. I’d wager a user who gets lots of “Likes” and replies on their tweets opens the app significantly more often than someone who simply follows a bunch of media organizations.

Dorsey says he’s going to fix these parts of Twitter. But this isn’t the first time the company has vowed to fix the new user experience, and it’s unclear if there’s much Twitter can really do at this point. If you believe Twitter can fix this issue, you have to really really believe. Because the company has tried for years, and yet here we are saying the same old thing: Twitter’s product needs help.

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