Peter Kafka

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Facebook Takes on Twitter by Courting Celebrities, Building Twittery Tools

channing tatum facebook babyWhen Channing Tatum wanted to publish the first picture of his new baby in June, he didn’t go to People or Us Magazine. Instead, he posted on his Facebook page.

And when Andy Murray won a surprise victory in Wimbledon in July, he headed straight to Facebook, where he hosted a Q&A with his fans.

That’s not a coincidence. Facebook has been ramping up its efforts to get more famous people using the site. In recent months it has bulked up a global team tasked with courting and hand-holding stars; in some cases, it offers incentives for those who post.

It’s all part of a bigger push to encourage more “public” content on the site, beyond the stuff only you and your friends care about. Facebook wants you to spend more time talking about things in the news, or stuff you see on TV. And it would like you to pay attention to things your favorite celebrities do on the site.

In other words: Facebook is acting more like Twitter.

Facebook officials won’t say that out loud. They cast their moves as a response to user behavior that has existed on the site for a long time, which is reasonable enough. But some will privately concede the Twitter parallels. And Twitter management is certainly taking notice.

Acting a bit like Twitter might not be a terrible idea. Advertisers are happy enough with Facebook — they’re on track to spend more than $6 billion on the social network this year — but marketers and TV networks seem intrigued with Twitter’s approach, as well. So why not take a few pages from that playbook, even if you don’t want to say that’s what you’re doing?

Which explains the Twitter-like tools and features Facebook has rolled out in recent months: “Verified” accounts to let users know that a famous person’s profile is legitimate; “hashtags” to help group conversations around the same topic; and embeddable posts, which let interesting things that happen on Facebook also appear on blogs and other sites.

Later today, Facebook plans to introduce another Twitterish feature. It will start experimenting with “Trending Topics” — a billboard that highlights things lots of Facebook users are talking about.

In Facebook’s version, which it said it will test with a small percentage of U.S. users on the company’s mobile website, users will see a banner flagging a particular topic. If they click on it, they’ll see what some of their friends are saying about it, and then they’ll see comments and posts from people they don’t know.

trending topic top of feedtopic feedalso trending

Justin Osofsky, the Facebook executive who oversees platform partnerships and is heading up the “public” push, said the company isn’t trying to move Facebook away from its original mission — connecting users with people they know.

But he said that lots of people are already using Facebook to sound off about politics, or TV shows, or celebrities. Like Facebook users who generated 65 million “Likes” and comments about the Oscars on the day of this year’s awards show.

The new initiative, he said, will help Facebook “unlock and surface the conversation about shared interests that’s already happening.”

And if it can spark more conversations, even better. Facebook has always helped celebrities navigate the site, and at times has had various outreach programs, including some led by Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi.

But earlier this year, Osofsky expanded the team that works with stars, from four people to “more than 10.” Among the new hires is Glenn Miller, who had formerly been in charge of digital strategy at the CAA talent agency. Talent managers and agents say they’ve heard a lot more from Facebook reps in the past few months. (Of course, they continue to hear from Twitter and other tech companies, too: Last week, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and product head Michael Sippey made the rounds in Hollywood.)

Nick Grudin, who heads up Facebook’s talent team, said its main job is to encourage “best practices” for celebs who want to use Facebook, like posting candid thoughts and pictures. (An example Grudin loves: Kobe Bryant’s impassioned, late-night ramblings after a season-ending injury.)

Grudin’s team will also let them know about some of the ways Facebook can help increase their profile on the site, like exposure on Facebook-controlled pages such as this one.

In a few cases, Grudin said, Facebook has used advertising inventory to help promote a celebrity’s Facebook page or presence. And for one star, he said, the company provided a photographer to take “behind the scenes” shots at a sporting event; Grudin said Facebook might consider doing that again.

Facebook is also being louder about the fact that all of this is happening on its site. Last month it announced, via social TV tracker Trendrr, that it has much more TV chatter than Twitter does. That’s not surprising, given the fact that Facebook has a billion users and Twitter has 200 million, but the announcement still riled Twitter employees.

Expect Facebook to keep beating the drum at the same time it courts talents and urges its users to talk among themselves. Said Osofsky: “This is an area of strategic importance for us.”


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik