The conversational arms race: Facebook adds new features to try and one-up Twitter

If Twitter and Facebook (s fb) are like rival nations, then their back-and-forth jockeying over competing features is the equivalent of an arms race, with each trying to outdo the other while more or less copying the same offerings. The latest salvo comes from Facebook, which just launched two new APIs that it says will allow media outlets and others to track conversations across the network — its most recent attempt to show that the billions of likes and status updates it gets have value beyond just their social content.

The new feature was introduced on Monday with a series of high-profile partners, including CNN and BuzzFeed, but will apparently be rolled out to a larger group of users soon, according to the company. The new APIs allow those partners to track and analyze updates and other activity based on specific criteria such as age, keywords, demographic profile, etc. And in a somewhat controversial twist, even user data that hasn’t been made public can be aggregated anonymously.

Tracking conversations across the network

NBC used the new features to collect and graph data about how many people are talking about Syria on Facebook, while (not surprisingly, perhaps) BuzzFeed used the new tool to compare how many people from different age groups and other demographics are talking about Syria vs. the behavior of singer Miley Cyrus:

Miley vs Syria

Facebook said in a blog post that the new feature is designed to “surface conversations” taking place on the social network about a variety of topics — which is very similar to what Twitter said recently about the launch of its new conversation feature, a blue line that connects tweets between various users as a way of showing what is being discussed on the network. At the time, Twitter said that it wanted to “make it easier for you to see conversations as they’re taking place.”

As Om pointed out in a recent post, in many ways Twitter’s conversation feature seems like an attempt to imitate some of what Facebook does: that is, to make it obvious that discussion is happening in much the same way that Facebook does with comments, so that users will engage more with their stream and spend more time on And the impetus for this is pretty clear — to boost the company’s numbers as it prepares for its almost inevitable IPO next year.

And while Twitter has been busy copying some elements of Facebook, the latter has been spending a fair bit of time doing exactly the same thing with Twitter: the social network that Zuckerberg built also recently added hashtags, as well as a tool that tracks trending topics across the platform.

Television is the real target

In addition to wanting to boost overall engagement levels, both Twitter and Facebook have one clear target when it comes to their conversation features: namely, the television market. Over the past year, Twitter has added more tools — and acquired more data analytics companies like Bluefin — in order to build up the arsenal of weapons it can provide to broadcasters and cable networks. Meanwhile, Facebook has been doing its best to make a case that it is the better platform.

That’s part of the reason why Twitter’s blog post on its conversations feature mentioned football, and Facebook’s blog post started with a comment about how much activity there was around the kickoff of the National Football League’s new season (20 million likes, comments and shares by eight million users), followed by a gigantic infographic about the large number of people who are logged into their Facebook accounts during TV’s prime-time period.

Facebook tv graphic

So if you as a user of either Twitter or Facebook find yourself turned off by the new conversation features, rest assured that you aren’t really the intended audience for those tools. As someone once said of such services: you aren’t really the customer, but rather the product that is being sold.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Oleg Zabielin