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Facebook and Twitter used to be distinctly different places to socialize online. One was public to the world, the other (mostly) just between friends. One was a place for news from your social circle, the other more about public events and discussion. One was dominated by images and multimedia, the other sparse and text-centric.

Over the past year those distinctions have broken down. In their rush to compete with one another and for ad dollars, Facebook and Twitter (soon to be a public company) are converging on the same set of features.

Facebook’s most recent borrowings from Twitter are blatant. Earlier this week the company announced a new “public feed” that compiles all public posts, similar to Twitter’s feed. Last month Facebook began highlighting “trending” topics to its users, as Twitter has long done. That feature was built on top of another feature new to Facebook but originating with Twitter, that of hashtags people use to label their comments with particular topics. Earlier this summer we learned that Facebook has staff who actively court celebrities and help them build followings on the site, an attempt to combat the fact Twitter has become the default place for public figures and their fans to connect.

Going the other way, Twitter recently introduced a redesign of how conversations are displayed. It abandons the site’s historical commitment to showing everything in reverse chronological order, in favor of the chronological convention elsewhere online (including on Facebook). Last year Twitter found a way around its reliance on text by introducing “cards”. They prominently display text, images, video, advertisements or other media linked to in a tweet and sidestep Twitter’s 140 character limit on posts. Twitter’s cards look and behave similarly to the way Facebook embeds media and ads in its feed. Most recently, this week Twitter purchased mobile ad company MoPub, likely to combat Facebook’s progress in mobile advertising.

Facebook and Twitter’s collision course seems more driven by their rush to make money from ads than an effort to fulfill the needs of their users. Twitter couldn’t display much paid for content without compromising its simple feature set and becoming more like Facebook. Facebook seems to be chasing Twitter’s features and real-time aspect to get the media to make use of it more, and to enable the kind of “second screen”, TV-linked ads believed to be very profitable (see “A Social Media Decoder”).

There’s not much data available to show whether this plagiarism campaign is working for the two companies (although early figures suggest hashtags don’t work on Facebook). It could help their smaller competitors, though. The dominant sites merging into one similar, ad-dominated mass leaves more space for them to innovate, and could make people more willing to try out different ideas about socializing over the Internet.

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