Here Comes United Plankton!

I'm really excited to tell you about a new product we're builing that's going to change the way you share and communicate across Social Media networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+. As some of you may know, I'm the guy behind @SocialMedia411 and a couple other accounts on Twitter. For the last 5 years I've been a keen observer of Social Media, and over that time I've been waiting for Twitter and Facebook to give us tools that provide more granular control over who we share things with, along with the ability to share privately or semi-privately. It's become clear to us that the solution we're looking for is not going to be built by the existing platforms, so we've decided to build it ourselves!

Our first step is the formation of a group called United Plankton. United Plankton's mission is to build exceptional consumer-centric Internet products that give control back to the people and free users from some of the constraints that Social Networks impose on their members. And to be clear, we're not building another Social Network; We're building tools to help you communicate more effectively across existing Networks.

Arbitraging Twitter vs Facebook

   The Faceoff between the Interest Graph and the Social Graph

In February of 2009 I mentioned to Fred Wilson ( that I wished it were possible to arbitrage the stock of private companies, specifically Twitter and Facebook. At the time Twitter was valued at $250 million and Facebook at $10 billion. The trade would have been; long 40 units of Twitter and short 1 unit of Facebook (40/1) to make it $10 billion against $10 billion (or fractions thereof). The most current valuations are $80 Billion for Facebook and $10 Billion for Twitter, or 8/1. So far the hypothetical trade has been hugely profitable. But the trade isn't completely played out yet, not by a long shot. Here's why:

IMO Twitter will eventually eclipse Facebook in terms of market capitalization. It's not a matter of if, but when - and the reasons are pretty straightforward. The Social Graph is far less monetizable than the Interest Graph, and symmetrical relationships don't represent the complexity or richness of real life like asymmetrical relationships do. This isn't good news for Facebook, because Facebook = Social / Symmetrical, and Twitter = Interest / Asymmetrical.

Don't get me wrong; I think Facebook will continue to be a very large and important player. But its revenue generating potential will ultimately be constrained by the nature of the relationships it was built to facilitate. As Judy Shapiro wrote in December of 2010; "Commerce happens in communities of interest - not social networks." Because of this and other factors, I fully expect that Facebook's "One Identity", increasingly AOL circa 1998 platform will eventually cede its leadership position to Twitter, both in users and revenues.

Update December 13th 2012: Facebook has a current market cap of ~ $68 billion, Twitter $12 billion. Expect the valuations to continue to converge in earnest throughh 2013.

Update November 4th 2013: Twitter is about to go pubic on November 7 and its valuation is expected to be in the $15 - $20 billion range while Facebook's current valuation is approximately $118 billion. That means the ratio between the two has narrowed only marginally in 2+ years, which I attribute to the fact that Twitter is still struggling to create more utility for its users, especially new users. Onboarding for new users is still a complete mess and deep media integration created to increase advertising revenue will take the platform only so far. Twitter still has a chance to become the most used and most valuable social network ever created, but unless and until they start concentrating on becoming a true information utility (rather than a media/advertising company) they will drastically limit their potential and unnecessarily leave themselves open to competitors and disruption.

How Americans Use Social Media - The Social Habit 2011

The Social Habit is a new study conducted by Edison Research and Arbitron, and is derived from the 19th Edison/Arbitron Internet and Multimedia Research Series, one of the longest-running studies of consumer adoption of the Internet and new media in existence.

This study was originally presented by Edison Vice President of Strategy Tom Webster at Blogworld in New York on May 25, 2011, and presented new, unreleased data for 2011 on America's adoption of social networking sites and services, with a detailed look at Facebook and Twitter usage, mobile social behavior, and location-based apps and services.

Power Users and Lean-Back Users: Twitter Needs A Healthy Ecosystem To Serve Their Entire User Base Effectively

Twitter recently gave some guidance to developers about which type of 3rd party clients (e.g. TweetDeck, CoTweet, Seesmic, etc) will be permitted going forward. The guidance was essentially that developers should stop building consumer oriented Twitter applicationsEvidently, they feel that "a consistent user experience is more crucial than ever." But the user confusion / inconsistent experience argument for reining in the ecosystem rings hollow. A more convincing explanation would be that Twitter needs to control the delivery of ad inventory across it's platform - and that's ok. Twitter has the right to do whatever it feels is best for them and their platform. And Alexandra Sameul has a good take on that in her recent piece over on the Harvard Business Review Blog. But biting the hand that feeds (um - fed) you is a mistake.

Twitter has benefited disproportionately from the efforts of it's ecosystem since it's inception. Hashtags, @ replies, RT's, and more all came from the ecosystem, not Twitter Inc. The real reason 3rd Party clients are so popular in the first place is that the product is virtually unusable for power users. They make using Twitter more intuitive and usable, not less. Shutting down the developer ecosystem in this heavy-handed way is counter-productive to Twitter's efforts to monetize in the long run. There are better ways to maintain control of your platform (and monetize other than serving ads) and still let 3rd parties innovate around your core where everybody makes more money. Ironically, this move to create a more consistent user experience may actually hurt them in a way that I don't think they're fully aware of. I contend that alternative user experiences actually increase their ability to monetize.

IMO the Twitter user base is split in to two basic user groups:

1) Power Users. This group uses Twitter as a business tool of some sort (customer acquisition/competitive intelligence/etc) and/or as an interaction platform. These users overwhelmingly use 3rd party clients because those clients are the only way you can efficiently process the Twitter stream. for this group is a complete non-starter. BTW, what ever happened to "Twitter for Business"?

2) Lean-Back Users: This group tends to follow high-profile celebrities, personal interests, and/or industry leaders. They consume and surf Twitter very similarly to how they consume Television or the Web in general - it's just another broadcast stream for them to drink from.  This is the group for which the development of some form of a "channel" solution would be very compelling: "If Twitter were TV, In Search of a Better Twitter App".

The smartest thing Twitter could do is to recognize these two basic user groups and determine how to best serve and monetize each. And I think Twitter knows that the participation of a talented/hungry/motivated developer ecosystem can better serve the user base than Twitter alone can.

I continue to believe that Twitter can be the most important communication channel in the history of the Internet, but they can't do it alone. Ironically, what they'll realize is that by shutting down the ecosystem under the guise of "inconsistent user experience" they're handcuffing product development, which will limit their potential audience, which will constrain their ability to monetize to their full potential. There's middle ground here with the opportunity to open up massive new revenue streams. Twitter just needs to think this through a little better.


(Thanks to Chris Dixon for prompting me to write this post)