Facebook Takes Aim at Twitter, Buys FriendFeed

Anybody who was still wondering if Facebook had noticed the rapid rise of Twitter need wonder no more. Today, Facebook announced it’s buying FriendFeed, the news- and information-sharing service founded by four ex-Google engineers. The move is a blatant acknowledgment by the huge social networking service that Twitter, with at least 45.5 million unique visitors a month, has stolen a significant chunk of mindshare from Facebook lately.

FriendFeed, which despite rapid growth has fewer than 1 million unique monthly visitors by various estimates, hasn’t managed to catch on much beyond social maniacs like uberblogger Robert Scoble. That’s despite a fairly slick service that aggregates people’s posts and comments from many sites, including Twitter and Facebook. In a post today, FriendFeed cofounder Bret Taylor made it clear that the smaller service would benefit from being under the wing of the largest U.S. social network, where its services can spread to some 250 million users worldwide.

For all its huge presence, however, Facebook faces a big challenge in unseating Twitter—which it tried to buy last year—as the premier water cooler of the digital age. Twitter’s unique combination of fast and easy posting, publicly by default, has struck a nerve with a lot of people. Twitter is a different animal than Facebook, despite similarities between Twitter “tweets” with the Facebook’s status updates. But like a lot of other people, I’ve found myself increasingly posting on Twitter and less so on Facebook lately, so there’s obviously a battle for people’s time that will only increase.

In particular, they’re battling to become the leaders in what some believe is the next generation of Web innovation, commonly called the real-time Web. As I indicated in a recent slide show on leaders and up-and-comers on the real-time Web, Facebook and Twitter are in a class by themselves.

Some smart folks, like uberblogger Robert Scoble and Om Malik, contend that this deal is more about Facebook vs. Google—in particular the battle for the high ground in real-time search. I’m not yet convinced that’s something that Google is fundamentally challenged by real-time search, but I do think the acquisition of FriendFeed will help Facebook cement its hold on the social Web, which Google has not come close to mastering.

There’s no word on how much Facebook is paying for FriendFeed, which had raised $5 million from Benchmark Capital and other investors early last year. It’s likely that ultimately FriendFeed will disappear into Facebook rather than continue as a distinct service.

With the addition of FriendFeed—in particular its talent, including cofounders Paul Buchheit, Bret Taylor, Jim Norris, and Sanjeev Singh—Facebook just gave itself a chance to slow Twitter’s momentum. After all, for all its popularity, Twitter doesn’t appeal to everyone, in particular young people. And early adopters of Web technologies, in fact, such as Scoble, are finding themselves less enchanted with Twitter of late. Not least, periodic blackouts of Twitter service—even if the latest one, a hacking incident, wasn’t exactly its fault, and affected Facebook and others too—have some people wary about how much to depend on it.

If Facebook can tap into that nascent discontent with Twitter with the acquisition of FriendFeed, and if it can integrate the startup and its considerable talent into Facebook quickly—two huge ifs—it may be able to recapture some sizzle it has lost to Twitter, and perhaps stay ahead of Google on Facebook’s home turf.

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