“Search Is A Pencil”

I will never forget that quote, from Alta Vista founder Louis Monier, as he bemoaned the devolution of his creation into Yet Another Portal. He was devoted to the idea that Alta Vista would do one thing – search – and do it well. But Alta Vista was instead…


I will never forget that quote, from Alta Vista founder Louis Monier, as he bemoaned the devolution of his creation into Yet Another Portal. He was devoted to the idea that Alta Vista would do one thing – search – and do it well. But Alta Vista was instead turned into a bawdy image of Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, Excite, and all the other portals of the late 90s.

And along came Google, which by 2000 had gained a reputation as the Best Search on the Web. And Yahoo, eager to appropriate all things Best on the Web, was more than happy to give Google what Netscape had given Yahoo in the mid 90s: a font row seat to Becoming the Next Big Thing.


This is all a throat clearing to Think Out Loud about Twitter and Facebook. (Like I’ve been doing anything else lately.)

The folks at Facebook are not ignorant of web history. As many of you have noticed, and I have posted about earlier, the relationship between the two companies is not exactly bidirectional. Sure, your tweets can show up as Facebook status updates. But can your Facebook status updates show up as Tweets? Nope.

Why not? Well, if you could use Facebook as an instance of Twitter, well, that would feed the Twitter ecosystem, would it not? It’d validate Twitter and drive Twitter adoption and traffic. Just like Yahoo’s adoption of Google did back in 2000-2002, or Netscape’s adoption of Yahoo did back in the late 1990s.

Facebook has realized it has an ambient awareness problem. And instead of cutting a partnership deal, Facebook first looked to simply buy Twitter. We’ve seen that movie before, a few times – Yahoo tried to buy Google before eventually buying Inktomi and Overture, for example.

Unfortunately, Twitter said thanks, but no thanks. In response (and quite quickly, to its credit), Facebook last week announced, in essence, that if it can’t buy Twitter, it’s going to outcompete it.

But I’m not sure that’s going to work. Why?

Because Twitter is a pencil. Facebook, on the other hand, is Photoshop. There’s so much you can do with it, the pencil function gets lost. It’s not a primary use case. (Yet.)

Back in 1997, Yahoo was a pencil to Netscape’s Photoshop. In 2000, Google was a pencil to Yahoo’s Photoshop. Today, Twitter is a pencil as well.

Will history repeat itself? That, I think, is one of the more interesting questions of the year.

I’m still looking for comparative statistics to help answer that question – the relative size and growth rates of each party at the time of the deals would be really, really interesting. Any researchers out there who want to take a look with me?

27 thoughts on ““Search Is A Pencil””

  1. It seems to me that Twitter is about discovery, and not search, and the implications are profound..

    But history does repeat, but how it plays out in a different context is the really interesting question..

  2. Interesting analogy!
    Twitter’s journey – So far so good.
    but once twitter gets into monetization, that pencil might eventually turn into a photoshop.Lets wait and watch.


  3. Both services provide emotional moments of truth, just as early voicemail did: in an otherwise sterile environment, voicemail was the only service that managed to pull the heartstrings of its users, as evidenced by people who would save treasured messages from friends and loved ones.

    Facebook’s business raison d’etre appears to be like Microsoft’s Passport, a federated identification platform able to understand the nuances between work, play and family and helped optimize the delivery third party services to match individual preferences and privacy concerns. Like Photoshop, it takes real time and effort for a developer to put together an app.

    On the other hand, Twitter shows the same flexibility and ease of use as the pencil. Twitter’s business essence seems to be more like television commercials, which used the intrusive power of television to interrupt our daily routines. Combined with the telephone, TV commercials gave us the ability to make immediate purchases. Early TV commercials simply had a tagline; today most TV spots have telephone numbers and URLs. This simple model gave rise to telethons, Time-Life books, take out food, infomercials, and many other business models.

  4. John, I suggest you use Facebook Help. I typed in RSS status and found an answer that was very helpful. Then I also marked it as helpful. And now I am helping you! It’s all about community: humans helping humans, life supporting life.

    It’s not about real-time machines or algorithms — it’s about you and me. We are what matters. IT doesn’t matter. Applications don’t matter. Algorithms don’t matter.

    Life matters. Love matters. Liberty matters. The pursuit of happiness matters.

    I sure hope Benjamin Franklin heard that! ;D

    BTW: My Facebook Status Updates can be viewed at:


    (but they’re not all that interesting – just imported from twitter.com… more interesting WRT Facebook is the stuff I’ve got at http://NOnline.INFO 😉

  5. I’m still looking for comparative statistics to help answer that question – the relative size and growth rates of each party at the time of the deals would be really, really interesting. Any researchers out there who want to take a look with me?

    Thank you, John.. this is a perfect example. I keep trying to explain why I am so dissatisfied with Google. I am dissatisfied because most of what Google does is help you navigate to the factoid, the homepage, etc. of a known item. It really doesn’t help you with more complex, interesting, recall-oriented information needs.

    Here, you have just expressed such a need. You’re not just looking for one single factoid. You’re not just looking for “the answer”. What you really want to know is the pattern. You want to compare and contrast various business cycles, various adoption rates, and cross correlate all that with company sizes, market conditions, etc.

    In short, you have an information need that is “recall-oriented”. You need to find a lot of different pieces of information, lots of different (but still related) web pages, to satisfy your task.

    And all Google offers you, in support of your task, is a single-line text box and spelling correction. Once you start searching and marking (clicking) results, once you start to build up a pattern in your information seeking behavior, does Google offer interesting and relevant suggestions? Does Google help you formulate or reformulate queries, to illuminate ideas and companies (e.g. Lotus 123?) that you might not have thought to ask about, on your own? Not to mention to help you ask the right sort of question, to find the sort of comparative statistics you’re after, for the companies that you do know about. No, it does not.

    I apologize for commenting slightly off-topic. But I had to do that quick little time-out and point out to you, with a concrete example (based on your own information need) what it is I fuss about so much. 🙂

  6. John – I think there are some key differences. Even if Twitter outdoes Facebook (still to be decided issue IMO) because of the focus on the status message/micro blog, it doesn’t mean long term success and value creation (for users or advertisers). Google was also blessed with this generation’s most powerful business model. Google’s prowess in search, its business model along with a simple brand proposition (pencil vs photoshop), helped it run away with the most lucrative market since the invention of software license business model…

  7. Liked your post.

    I wonder how people can really trust that Facebook will be as simple, mobile, fast and re-invented / re-used in new ways as Twitter.

  8. BTW: twitter should cash out NOW. It won’t be king of the mountain forever.

    I like the simplicity of sharing information @ amplify ( see my profile @ http://online.amplify.com 😉

    This is (AFIAK) 100% open source (built using WordPress MU).

    What makes it SUPER-COOL (+Quick +Easy) to use is the integration with browser software — the integration is SPIFFY & CLEAN! ;D

    So twitter.com should strike a deal now before they wait too long — only to be sold for small change at a garage sale!

    🙂 nmw

    ps: it’s “Wisdom of the Language”, baby — it’s happening (see http://gaggle.info/miscellaneous/articles/wisdom-of-the-language 😉

  9. John,

    I like your points, however, I am not sure the analogy with Y and GOOG is correct. Netscape viewed itself as a software company and happily sold real estate to a company that viewed itself as in the New Media space (Yahoo).

    Yahoo, viewing itself as a New Media company, happily outsourced its search infrastructure to Google. In both instances the established player did not feel threatened by the upstart.

    Facebook and Twitter both view themselves in the community/communications space. Within that realm, there are of course differences, but living in the same neighborhood, it’s just too hard to ‘cooperate’.

  10. Who will have the most data?

    If Twitter is the pencil, will it be able to acquire more data?

    Does Twitter’s ‘identity crisis’ make its data less valuable?

  11. Loving the analogy.

    I like using my pencil for the simple tasks but when I want something impressive, I crack out the Photoshop.

    It’s nice to have a pencil and a Photoshop to work with and I hope this remains a fact.

    I read somewhere on the net that:

    Facebook is for talking to people you used to know,

    Twitter is for talking to people you want to know. (not quote perfect but how I remember it, lol)

    Both have there place.

    It will certainly be interesting to see how this plays out!

    Thanks for posting,


  12. Twitter’s more versatile that a mere pencil.

    Different users use Twitter differently, yet it seems to work for most. Sometimes I feel like I’m evesdropping on an IM comversation, other times I feel like it’s a chatroom and then it becomes a newsfeed or a series of blog posts.

    The search function will certainly develop more capability so once the index becomes large enough it will be a powerful search engine that can rival Google in many (but not all) circumstances.

  13. I hope someone with time and skills available will take you up on your request for help in tracking the numbers.
    I trust the graphs would tell the story especially if cross-referenced to valuations at a given point in time.

    I suggest there are other factors necessary to keep this comparison in an “apples to apples” (valid) format. Also, consider how the new pencil upstart benefits by the bleeding/leading edge (first generation) social media’s having blazed a trail of acceptance or usefulness. So previous “photoshop” experiences factor in ways that help to make using that sharp, new “pencil” more attractive.

  14. John,

    I have been using the RSS feed from my Facebook status updates to auto tweet my ‘status’ for more than a year now. Your Facebook status offers an RSS feed and that means Twitterfeed to the rescue.

    So, it seems RSS remains the one, true and genuine ‘pencil.’ And it is a free technology.

  15. I value Twitter for being an empowering media. I am powerfully and measurably attracted to how Twitter allows me to shape and personalize the experience of discovery, going beyond the just the social realm. That quality of adaptability provides users a satisfaction that is rare and valuable.

  16. This is exactly the same reason Google hasn’t incorporated search of twitter feeds into its main results page yet – doing so would validate Twitter as the source for real time information, enabling a potentially serious search competitor in that vertical

  17. Enjoyed your article and thoughts. I’m inclined to agree but would add that exponentially these ‘pencils’ appear to be becoming signficant *and* insignificant at an increasing pace.

    If Google has indeed lost site of the one thing that has made it great – the search facility – and Twitter both as a medium and real-time search rival can usurp the great one in the public consciousness, we probably won’t be far into 2010 before the next pencil is upon is. With perhaps a choice of coloured knibs, and a trendy eraser on the back. Although of course that would counter somewhat with the essential purity.

    I’m guessing big things will be happening with paper and real pencils in the next decade. Leadpunk, anyone?

  18. My problem with the Facebook development is that I have no problem :). I don’t have a Facebook account, get along just fine without it, but really enjoy micro-blogging.

    Why join a giant ecosystem like Facebook for this with features I’ll never use? Facebook can leverage its existing users maybe, but for everyone else not on Facebook, Twitter and similar small opponents will remain forever popular.

    I think that limitation alone will seriously limit Facebook’s competitiveness. Nobody wants a too complex scenario where we need to track multiple micro services to connect to everyone – we already have/had (arguably) that already with social networks. Without a central point of connectedness, only one point can remain commonly popular unless the market segments between divergent user groups.

    Twitter has already captured this market, and I doubt Facebook can make much headway against the dominance of a service that creates its own verb: to tweet 🙂

  19. Kudos for the excellence of your pencil v photoshop analogy. Imagine what would be possible if we combined the two without destroying the uniqueness which allows them to create differently…

    (Retreats in thought about the importance of balance in all creative endeavour).

  20. Interesting article. I, like many others, lead a really hectic life but like to try and keep abreast of what is happening in relation to work related stuff, friends and my interests. The problem is as I get older and the amount of information out that gets unmanageable, I have long wished for a tool that enables me to cherry pick what is interesting at a glance. I don’t want to have to type keywords into an empty search field. I would much rather have a crowd of trusted people searching on my behalf. And that tool is potentially Twitter. For me it is more than just a pencil. I think the potential of Twitter is enormous but lies away from simply tapping into the stream of consciousness that it facilitates. For one thing it enables the crowd to source really useful information and pass it on. If Twitter could be built around my needs and allow me to find and manage people better, organise my groups and tweets more effectively and ‘push’ relevant people and content to me (based on my interests) then what a simple and powerful tool that would be. I know I am probably on my own on this but if you would like to see my view of twitter then have a look at this blog post: http://connectedthought.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/my-twitter/

  21. Interestingly, I’m pretty sure you meant to write “move” instead of “movie”, but the paragraph works just fine with either word. I love it when typos do that.

  22. @Sheamus: I’m guessing big things will be happening with paper and real pencils in the next decade. Leadpunk, anyone?

    In that case, it won’t be bad to be #2?


  23. Yeh, I know we could but then I would be adding to the growing number of Twitter applications. Where would it end? One of my wishes is a single UI and I believe that this has to be Twitter. Imagine if the Facebook UI was reliant on third parties building one using the Facebook API. You would end up with 20 fragmented interfaces with various degress of functionality. Surely this would impact on the overall experience? Applications can be built using Facebook API but Facebook is the single destination. With the best will in the world API rarely cover 100% of available functionality.

  24. We must be one of the few companies nowadays it seems not really using either of those app’s for real business purposes, there isn’t a chance in hell that we would use something that initially, to us, appeared so cheesey as facebook, our early impressions were of lonely middle aged women chatting on it because they actually had nothing better to do. Not the market we are targeting. Also so much junk and spam plug ins (ok some may call it marketing and advertising but to me its spam)

    Twitter seems a lot more business like, like a roaming address book of sorts and I can see the benefits from a time to roi perspective with a network you may build up.

    In my humble opinion tho, our seo has become a little easier the last twelve months or so with the explosion of the app’s and to me its because so many people are wasting time using these and not actually doing as much of the productive work they were doing before.

    Ignorance is bliss maybe so leave me in peace 🙂

  25. @ConferenceCoordinator: “facebook, our early impressions were of lonely middle aged women chatting on it”

    Clearly you don’t know what you’re talking about. Facebook started as a college-only closed system. After it spread like wildfire on colleges, Zuckerberg opened it up to select companies, and then to the general public at large. At no stage did it have “lonely middle aged women chatting”.

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