Facebook responds to Google+, Twitter with 'subscribe' button

The new feature will let Facebook users follow others' public posts without necessarily being approved friends

Facebook is extending the scope of its site into Twitter and Google+ territory by making it possible for Facebook members to subscribe to each other's public posts without necessarily having to be approved friends.

The option to let other Facebook members subscribe to one's public posts will go live across the site in the coming days, Facebook said on Wednesday.

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"It's a change in the social architecture of Facebook and it's clearly a competitive response to both Google+ and Twitter," said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes.

This feature will apparently replicate Twitter's "follow" model and similar functionality available in Google+. This is a capability that famous users have been requesting for a while, because personal profiles have a maximum limit of 5,000 friends.

A way to get around this limitation on Facebook has been to set up a promotional Page, but for this type of user, that means managing two presences on the site.

Now, users will be able to let others subscribe to their public posts without having to add them as friends, a move that puts Facebook in much more direct competition with Twitter and adds a major new usage scenario for Facebook members.

However, it remains to be seen how widespread the adoption of this new functionality will be, considering that this concept of public broadcasting represents a fairly new way of interacting on Facebook, Valdes said.

"People will have to get adjusted to this new way of engaging," he said. "People have a certain expectation for Facebook -- that it's primarily for friends and family, people you're close to. So the question is: As Facebook extends its sphere of social engagement, will users accept this?"

Industry analyst Greg Sterling, from Sterling Market Intelligence, doesn't see Twitter users closing their accounts en masse and moving their Twitter activities over to Facebook. "It's a useful feature to have on Facebook but I don't think it will harm Twitter," Sterling said.

This new Subscribe Button is the latest in a rapid-fire string of new features Facebook has added in the past month, which many industry observers believe have been prompted by the launch in limited beta of Google+ at the end of June.

"Facebook has certainly been piling on features, partly in response to competition. The problem is that often these features aren’t as well integrated as if they’d been designed from the beginning. Also, user habits take time to change," Valdes said.

So this demonstrates that Facebook can add features very quickly, but it's not clear yet if users can adapt their behavior at that rapid pace, he said.

This week, Facebook announced new features to simplify and automate the grouping of friends, and earlier made its privacy controls more prominent and easier to use, two improvements seen as reactions to the Google+ Circles feature.

Previously, Facebook also rolled out video chat, which it lacked when Google+ launched with its Hangouts video chat feature.

In addition to encroaching on Twitter's stomping ground, the new Facebook Subscribe Button also matches a similar functionality available in Google+ Circles.

The Subscribe Button will also let users filter out some status updates from their activity streams if they have become too "noisy" with posts that are of little interest.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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