Facebook is the suburbs while Twitter is the city

Facebook headquarters

Social networks enable varied forms of interaction between their users, through spectrums of openness, hierarchy, and discovery. Facebook and Twitter are the most used services to connect people socially, but bring people together in surprisingly different ways. Facebook’s strengths rely on easily connecting with established networks, showing highlights, and sharing meta-actions (like posting pictures or events). Twitter’s advantages lie in instant communication, building ad-hoc networks, and providing public and widely accessible information.

Why compare social networks to geographical networks? I’ll argue that the same openness, hierarchy, and discovery also applies to suburbs and the city, greatly affecting our modes of relationship. Suburbs span a large area, creating both silos of community and a greater privacy. Suburbs aren’t great for meeting people, but they do provide a framework for connecting disjointed entities to a center.

Twitter headquarters

In comparison, cities move quickly and connect people through greater density. People gather at the local events or meetups, making new friendships from shared interests. Rather than surrounding a center, the city is the center.

The Chasm of Public versus Private

Probably the most often used word in a sentence concerning “Facebook” is privacy, a concept almost never discussed about Twitter. Many Facebook posts are marked ‘for friends only’, and some are concerned over the privacy issues with ‘mutual friends’. Conversations happen in response to a post and comments—very much in a stimulus/response methodology. While commenters sometimes talk among themselves in a post, a trend emerges: the commenters are either friends already, or there will likely be no lasting relationship between them. Compared to Twitter, responses to an original tweet may invoke conversation between responders (sometimes facilitated by the original tweeter), and at its conclusion, responders may choose to follow one another, building a network link between them where one previously didn’t exist and being a part of future cross-talk. Choosing to follow someone on Twitter denotes a more casual relationship than befriending someone on Facebook.

Facebook interactions tend to center around the originator, making only weak links between the other parties.

These human interactions mirror those of a suburb versus a city. Imagine the conversation on the Facebook post as a house party in the ‘burbs. The friend of a friend that you met has context per your conversation at the party, but you may have little connection afterward. And without much way to build a relationship between the two, you may never cross paths again perhaps unless you happen to be at your friend’s house. But Twitter is like meeting that friend of a friend at your local coffee shop that you three frequent. You can establish a few things in common, and if you go there in any frequency, you’ll meet up again and potentially create that new relationship. Not only that, but because your conversations are public, like a group of 10-15 people meeting at that coffeeshop, new organic connections will be made between individuals with shared interests much more easily than in the private confines of a home.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 9.36.26 PM
Twitter interactions have fewer barriers to growing beyond the initiator.

Crosstalk is a feature of Twitter where, if two people you follow converse with messages to each other, these notes will show up in your timeline. Facebook has a similar feature—if one posts to a mutual friend’s wall, you’ll often see this in your Facebook timeline. But on Twitter, conversations are natural—encouraging others to pipe in—as they are clearly public, after all. Twitter serves as an equivalent of a public forum, rather than overhearing someone’s conversation, as there is no expectation of privacy.

The Destination versus The Journey

Suburbs classically keep their gems along huge arterial roads, surrounded by seas of parking lots. Drivers often complain about traffic while traveling on unsafe roads, having to walk across a large expanses of blacktop, traveling five or ten miles from their homes to a destination. City-living people often walk, bike or bus a few minutes from their homes, to a small and livable place, built at human scale. The experience that can be enjoyable—or terrifying—like our interface through Facebook or Twitter.

Facebook posts are often post-facto—reflections, pictures, collection of thoughts—in which the things you see are selected by an algorithm, based on likes, comments, or how much a company has paid for you to see it. It’s prepared. Sometimes stale. May be non-chronological. Packaged for sitting on shelves in a big box store, staying ‘fresh’ for months. Twitter, on the other hand, has fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market downtown. The fish from the sea this morning (sometimes with a less-than-pleasant smell). Rather than buying a five pound box, you get just what you need for breakfast this morning.

Tweets are often not fully-processed, mass-produced packages. They have defects, or they don’t sufficiently capture an idea. But sometimes they capture someone’s first thought in the morning, or an observation walking down the street not significant enough to warrant a post to Facebook. And sometimes that thought comes in a series of three, four, or five tweets—the timing, organic nature matters, and gives a unique flavor that big-box chain restaurants will consistently fail to deliver.

Choosing your friends versus Befriending your neighbors

When someone retweets someone else’s tweet into your timeline, it’s introducing something new into your system. The tweet is reproduced whole, with no comment, and including the original poster’s avatar. At first, retweets can feel almost like a breach of friendship—similar to a friend letting an unknown stranger into your home. It’s not uncommon for new Twitter users to ask how to turn off retweets in their timeline.

This similar occurrence doesn’t wholly exist on Facebook, but people can share an item (usually with comment). Instead, Facebook’s filtering isolates you from unwanted intrusions. Your Facebook timeline’s stories are likely influenced from a friend’s likes or comments, or Facebook’s algorithms show you things it determines you may want to see. Getting that semi-random retweet from a person that’s not expected, or sometimes not particularly wanted, doesn’t exist. You can move further out of town to stop this (i.e. disable retweets from the retweeter) . You can put up a fence (blocking the retweeted person). But you live in a dense neighborhood which by default accepts diversity over homogeny.

Mapping existing networks versus Building new networks

Friends don’t let friends move to the suburbs. Why? Because often it’s a precursor to devolving friendships rather than building them. Partly the lack of density strains friendships, requiring travel to visit old friends (suburban or urban). People keep their friendships when moving out of the city, but the friendship structure is now virtually out of balance with reality. The same is often true with Facebook.

Facebook communities and friendships are descriptive—they exist to mirror an external friendship/relationship (school, family, acquaintances . Twitter communities and friendships are conscriptive—they’re often building a relationship that wasn’t there prior to Twitter (location based, interests, learning). The problem with Facebook networks is that they quickly get out of date, stale, and siloed.

Living versus Deteriorating

Twitter is the ever-changing city. There are always new people to meet (follow) and old friendships may lapse when it’s time (unfollowing). Time is a constraint. There is a limit to how many people, things, and ideas a single person can care about. Twitter rarely has the nostalgia factor that keeps so many dead Facebook friendships alive. Yet Facebook allows relations to persist like an old, dead mall that’s long past its relevance.

@ericmbudd on twitter

71 thoughts on “Facebook is the suburbs while Twitter is the city

  1. Your analogy comparing Facebook to a house party got me thinking about where Facebook better fits into that equation. You’re right that its focus is existing networks. But networks grow on Facebook when people actually meet outside of Facebook – like at a house party or on Twitter. Twitter often leads to Facebook connections when it’s time to get to know someone beyond what is tweeted publicly.

  2. Beautiful. I agree 100%. In the process of thinking about the details for a story, for the past few days my mind has drifted off thinking about the difference between Facebook and Twitter. I came to the same conclusions as you but without the metaphors and the beauty with which you put forward your thoughts. Would you mind if I reblog this?

  3. Really cool concept. You could also say that Twitter is for young (er) people and that young (er) people live in busy cities and are trying to network as much as possible, whereas Facebook, the ‘suburb’ social networking site, takes things at a slower, more familial pace.

  4. Very good read! Aside from a few minor disagreements, I think you’re spot on. I’ve been a Facebook user since it’s infancy, but have never had a desire to join other networks until a very recent consideration of joining Twitter. This may have just pushed me over the ledge.

  5. I left Facebook years ago just because I felt like it wasn’t for me. The privacy issues were one thing, but it also exposed me to people I knew IRL but didn’t necessary ‘know’… suddenly I was being subjected to all their intimate thoughts and politics, things that we didn’t really discuss in person. It was weird. Also, it made me like them less ;P

    Then recently I joined Twitter (actually because I got Freshly Pressed too! And wanted to know when it was live, and that seemed to be the easiest way) and WOW, I LOVE IT. It’s just as you mentioned, you don’t feel as if you’re intruding on anyone, because everyone is just putting their tweets out there, rather than writing on their own private wall.

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂 It’s a great article, well argued and thought out.

  6. Great read! It articulates why I love facebook and am not a huge fan of twitter. This rural girl enjoys privacy, and sharing what I want. Twitter is too casual, too public. Spot on!

  7. Great Post.

    If only we had the old days of blogging when you could blog without all the riot police rounding us up.

    All because their friends stir up trouble?



  8. Demond, be much more careful on Twitter.

    They do not like me. 🙂


    Eric, great read. I loved it, and as you can read from my reblog, I have had my experiences with Twitter – just last night.


  9. Reblogged this on thewordpressghost and commented:

    I love this Freshly Pressed blog for more reasons than you can guess.

    “But on Twitter, conversations are natural—encouraging others to pipe in—as they are clearly public, after all. Twitter serves as an equivalent of a public forum, rather than overhearing someone’s conversation, as there is no expectation of privacy.”

    First, I must agree as I disagree.

    Twitter just suspended my account. City like, and un city like at the same time. When someone calls the cops on you in the City, you actually get a cop that comes and tells the other person to calm down, they are out of line.


    You do not get that on Twitter. You get the Country friend of a friend, who tries to throw you in jail for spitting on the side walk, when you didn’t. So you have to call your attorney ….

    But, I am laughing as I read your comparison. Because, yesterday at this time, I would have agreed with you totally. Maybe Twitter will fix their problem soon, and I will agree again?


  10. Interesting analogy! I just started a Twitter account a few days ago after years of resistance, and have found my attraction to Facebook fading almost instantaneously. I’ll probably keep one foot in both for now, but I think my primary residence will probably become the big city 😉

  11. Trying to navigate Twitter can seriously be like, moving through a city that constantly morphs. As far as personal versus public, it seems that if you really want to be a figure in social media you have to be willing to be exposed in all aspects. One major difference is to cater your social media tools to the slight variants of your followship. If you have fans cater to the avid followers with Twitter, for the casual followers use Facebook or Pinterest.
    Good article it was interesting to read.

  12. I especially can relate to your ending line saying Facebook keeps your “dead friendships” alive. You found words to express what ive been thinking for so long but unable to verbalize. Great read! Tina

  13. This is a great way of looking at these two regions. By the way, I initially moved into the surburbs but now spend most of my time in the city. I like the fast life and the ability to reach so many neighbors!

  14. Facebook and Twitter, to use the travel location analogy, to me are like the seedy lounge on the dark periphery of an ugly town and the festering restroom facilities at the back of that lounge. People make bad choices about sustenance and relationships in the former and then shuffle quickly into the latter to, shall we say, act out the unpleasant results in such a way that make too many aware of it. Except with social media, it’s not just one bill at the end of the night. You have to keep paying for months.

  15. I can say I learned a lot & nothing reading this post. I use neither FB or twit. I am neither old nor young. Not city, but not suburb either.

    I guess I still just question the logic of people having interests in what SOMEONE ELSE ate for lunch? I’d be more worried about what’s on my plate.
    I think this is why the world is so screwed-up.

    Congrats on getting pressed!!!

  16. Valuable analogy. Twitter seems largely free of the emotional baggage of fb. Reblogged on Time Nexus – thanks.

  17. Great analogy, very insightful followup. I’ve never heard Facebook and Twitter described quite this way, but your rationale makes perfect sense. I’m also feeling a bit of superiority for preferring Twitter (the city) to Facebook (the burbs). Thanks for giving me that, since I actually do live in the suburbs.

  18. This was a really well thought out analogy post. Well done! This got me thinking a lot. I love Twitter because I can reach out to people I will never meet with no expectation that they have to “know” me before they accept what I have to say. Facebook on the other hand, has so many faux pas attached to it. You may be “friends” with an acquaintance and ready all of their posts, but commenting is a no-no since you don’t “know” them.

    Very interesting. It will be lovely to see how this holds up moving into the future. What social networks are to come….

  19. This is a really interesting point you bring up here, I guess it’s just hisory’s way of repeating itself. That makes me wonder then, if our social networks and other things in the virtual world are already replicating what we have created in real life. Will there come a time (or it may have already happened I’m not sure) when the real world lags behind the virtual world? Seems like a mildly scary proposal to me.


  20. Facebook disabled my account for no valid reason. Yesterday I went to sign in and was told I was a fake person. I sent over 22 emails with my valid drivers license since May 2013. For months now, I have been locked out, blocked for 30 days, all for no valid reason. At age 42, I used Facebook for keeping in touch with my family and very close friends only. I had 65 people on my FL. When I started blogging, I made a fan page in June. My small fan base for just starting out was 70 fans. I never did anything wrong to be locked out. My account is now disabled and I cannot make a new one. I have dealt with this for too long and after email #23 today, I finally gave up. I lost my pics, comments from 2 deceased family members which were their last posts on my wall.
    From what I have read, many FB users have had this happen also. One woman was 65 years old and was told she was fake. I just have to laugh now. Thank you for sharing your post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

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