The past few weeks have been pretty intense for Facebook and Twitter. The two Web 2.0 rivals both held conferences about how their companies are doing and revealing plans for the future. Facebook's (f8) main presented functionality was the universal Like button, which was already adopted by more than 50.000 websites in its first week, even though with a bit of problems. Twitter (Chirp) announced its service has more users than expected (105m registered, 180m unique users a month) and their main focus in the future will be Twitter Annotations, used for making Tweets embedded with meta-data used for better indexing and search. These two features imply that one of the main battlefields of the future of web will surely be the semantic web, for which experts say at this point Facebook has the advantage.
Leaving aside speculations about where this whole story is headed and how the semantic web will turn out, and concentrate on another thing hot right now: real-time web. Real-time web has so much potential even Google wanted a part of it. Sadly, Buzz came out a bit of a failure, and most of it's traffic is non-generated. The giant probably doesn't really care because it can display Tweets and other streams in it's search results, finding a symbiosis with real-time web services, similar as it has with Wikipedia. But still, it's "new" Buzz service proves that real-time web is interesting for everybody, even the biggest web company in the world.
The main point of real-time web is already hidden in its name. It's about information when it happens. News portals and blogs are minutes if not hours behind, after all, they usually present professional and lectured articles with sources and photographies. But in this hectic and hyper-speed world we live in, information has the highest value when it happens. In the case of extraordinary and unpredictable events, such as natural and man-made disasters, or just casual popular things, such as the premiere of a new movie, timing means everything. That is why journalists turn to these sources more and more, and CNN occasionally analyzes the twittersphere live on television, taking advantage of these new modern media platforms. They actually deserve to be congratulated for seizing this great opportunity.
Where does Facebook fit into this picture? Well, to be honest, I think it's still trying to fit in it, and that's what the whole "Privacy and real-time web" in this post title is all about. To understand what I'm getting at, we must go a few years back, back to Facebook's beginnings. Facebook started as a closed network for elite schools, then slowly opening up to general public to become one of the biggest websites ever. The service and concept was originally based around privacy – where everything you did you had a full control over who will see it, what probably made it big in the first place. Today, this privacy is almost gone, and even Mark Zuckerberg admitted it doesn't interest them any more.
This decline of Facebook's privacy is concerning many people right now, and you can check out this interesting evolution for yourself (also visualized). Activism and search for alternatives have already made it to the mainstream and it looks like I'm becoming a part of this movement too. Don't get me wrong, I still think Facebook is a great service both for personal and professional life, but sometimes you just have to not want it all (sounds familiar?). It's a bit ironic actually, the thing which made Facebook could also become its end.
In the case of content providing, real-time web and search, for which Facebook perhaps also has ambitions, privacy is a giant barrier. Facebook has content, not only that, it has the most content of them all (including multimedia), but this valuable content is entangled inside Facebook's huge web of (dissolving) privacy, making most of the streams unreachable for general public. Even Facebook Pages, designed to have their information fully open to public, were not helping a lot, because it's the the millions of microbloggers, from the most influential, to the most insignificant, who are empowering the real-time web, and not brands and corporations. Real-time web is a giant crowdsourced news network with reporters scattered all around the world, and that is something Facebook so desperatly wants to be a part of, using all means necessary.
Twitter is the king
We will see if Facebook went too far or will it be able to become a real player in real-time web too. For now, Twitter seems to be the dominant platform and the fact that it's entire timeline will be archived in the Library of Congress is an amazing achievement proving this theory. Facebook's only option to make it on this market is to continue getting rid of privacy, making it's content available for everybody, both human and machine. Of course, there will be other players too and uncle Google will sit right on top of it, trying to use all the platforms and services to its own benefit.
Number of users is the crucial component of real-time web, so Facebook could probably have a greater potential in this field in the long run too. But the truth is Facebook users are becoming annoyed, and it's still a question how they'll accept its new strategic policy and how intimidated they will become by its frequent debacles. But the attachment to Facebook can sometimes be too heavy, so it will be interesting to see if users will actually leave Facebook or simply adapt to its new privacy, continuing to feed it with accessible real-time content.
If the future is semantic web, reality is real-time web, and at this point Twitter is very much in the lead. In the end, it probably doesn't make a lot of difference for a casual user if he gets the information late, but still, the whole concept of real-time web is quite amazing and holds great potential for many people and businesses. An interesting thing, the World Wide Web is, and everything that came with it. Welcome to 2010.
Check out the complete Facebook vs. Twitter series.