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Facebook is becoming Twitter

Monday, 3 Feb 2014 | 10:36 AM ET
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Facebook has 1.19 billion active users. Twitter has around 232 million. And Facebook wants to keep it that way.

While it's an amazing platform, Twitter has had trouble expanding because its feed is intense and overwhelming. It really takes work to keep up. This is what power users — who are obsessed with content and news (me included) — love. But many people do not have the time, energy and desire to plow through the hundreds of tweets that come through per hour. During heavy meetings or travel days, I am relegated to checking just one thing that curates all the news I need — @mediaredef, created by former MySpace president Jason Hirschhorn.

For the last year, Facebook has been subtly integrating Twitter's most compelling features, but without compromising its news-feed algorithm, which exists to prevent people from becoming inundated with posts. The result has been an improved user experience, adding value to the precious newsfeed and benefitting users, publishers and advertisers alike.

(Read more: The Internet's love/hate relationship with Twitter)

It began in early December, when Facebook simply renamed its "subscribe" and "hide all" features, calling them "follow" and "unfollow." This was done to encourage users to control the content in their feed. If you don't want to see your college friend's baby photos, don't complain about seeing too many baby pics on Facebook — unfollow them! Facebook's algorithm controls the content in your news feed, but it is based on the signals you provide, both positive (like, comment, share and get notifications) and negative (unfollow, unlike and "I don't want to see this").

Around the same time that it added the "follow" button, Facebook began to rank link posts from publishers higher in the feed. As a result, the news feed became significantly more meaningful, filled with great content and breaking news. Twitter was the darling social network for journalists, and then Facebook flipped the switch. In the fourth quarter, referral traffic from Facebook rose 50 percent, accounting for over 15 percent of all social referrals. Meanwhile, Twitter referrals decreased 4 percent, with the platform making up less than 2 percent of all social referrals. Now publishers must take Facebook seriously.

The natural progression of this publisher favoritism was Facebook's "trending" feature. It's the perfect Monday morning headline summary. What's great about this Twitter remix is that it adds context: a) You learn why a topic is trending and b) The topics are personalized based on what you "like" — my mom will not see headlines for the WWE's Royal Rumble as I do. It's rare that people immediately like a brand new Facebook feature (and admit it), but the reaction to this unit has been overwhelmingly positive, based on tweets from journalists, media execs, marketing execs, and investors.

(Read more: Twitter prostitutes are real — and Congress wants to know more)

Until last week, the missing piece to Facebook's Twitter-assimilation plan was user-generated content. People were only posting the most important and emotive content — babies, weddings, and major milestones. It was rare that people shared thoughts and ideas as they often do on Twitter. But Facebook will now be ranking text-only status updates from users higher in the news feed. Their research showed that these posts not only scored positively, but also resulted in the people who saw them posting more status updates.

Now when I go on Facebook, I see a calmer version of Twitter: updates from my closest friends and family, a lot of relevant news and good content, and a native ad sprinkled in every ten or so posts. I usually don't notice that the ads are ads unless the advertiser's content or targeting are poor.

This ideal Facebook experience is a novel format and medium, but not conceptually different than traditional media: content (entertainment and news), ads (commercials, display ads, banners), and context (the water cooler, the living room, website comment sections).

Building on that, Facebook just launched Paper, a feature that groups news/posts about the same topic together.

Down the line, I expect Facebook to integrate premium content, especially video, into its various app experiences. Imagine watching a live sporting event or news broadcast on Facebook, with all of your friends who are also tuned in.

(Read more: The new Internet: From dot-com to dot-dating)

For power users, Twitter is still the best for real-time news, as well as live events. But for the many Facebook users who aren't on Twitter — and busy people who can't afford to be sucked into the neverending content vortex that is Twitter — Facebook has become a simpler alternative.

— By Jason Stein

Jason Stein is the founder of social-media agency Laundry Service, and a partner in Windforce Ventures, a venture-capital firm focused on social and mobile. Follow him on Twitter @jasonwstein.

Disclosure: Stein owns shares of Facebook and Twitter.

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