Why Facebook Beat Twitter

Ten years of innovation, lesson No. 2: Everybody stumbles.

Why Facebook Beat Twitter
Photo: Flickr user Alessio Jacona (Mark Zuckerberg); Flickr user Esten Hurtle (Jack Dorsey) Photo: Flickr user Alessio Jacona (Mark Zuckerberg); Flickr user Esten Hurtle (Jack Dorsey)

I’ll admit that in the early days, I really didn’t get Twitter. Facebook was intuitive for me: a way to connect with my friends, my family, my colleagues. Twitter just seemed kind of . . . vague. But I eventually got with the program and saw the power in a new kind of broadcast medium. In Fast Company‘s 2012 World’s Most Innovative Companies issue, both Facebook and Twitter were ranked in the top 10, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was on the cover. (Mark Zuckerberg had been on the cover in 2010.) At that point, there was still talk that Twitter could be a billion-user platform.

The next year, though, neither Facebook nor Twitter made our Most Innovative Companies list. It wasn’t that we suddenly dismissed them. But they each had failed—at that point—to adapt themselves in a leading way to key growth challenges. As deputy editor David Lidsky wrote in a special commentary, “Both companies have turned their focus away from users and toward shareholders to get bigger, not better. Revenue is great, but not at the expense of the product.”

Did we make a mistake, especially given how Facebook’s business has soared since then? Nope. We excluded the social network because it had stumbled in the transition to mobile—and, in hindsight, it needed that setback to get where it is today. How Zuckberberg and team responded, in fact, sets them apart from many others—including Twitter. While Twitter has had trouble remaking its service—antagonizing outside developers, failing to effectively invite in new users—Facebook attacked its growth challenges with urgency. And it continues to apply that sort of urgency for change (notably in Instagram’s reaction to the Snapchat threat), leaving its erstwhile rival way, way behind.

Every business falters sometimes. What defines an enterprise, though, is how it responds to those stumbles. Nike took the top spot (and the cover) of the same 2013 Most Innovative Companies issue that excluded Facebook and Twitter, on the basis of two innovations: FuelBand, which was perhaps the first breakthrough consumer wearable; and Nike’s Flyknit technology for sneaker design and manufacturing. Fuelband rode a wave of great buzz, commanding central attention at two consecutive SxSW festivals, but it ultimately failed to sustain as an ongoing business. Meanwhile, Flyknit has radically remade the industry and become a central element in Nike’s product mix. The fact that only one of those innovations continues to bear fruit simply underscores that there are no guarantees in this time of change; a 50% success rate is a victory.

Resilience, then, is as much a requirement of innovative cultures as creativity. Tellingly, the year before Facebook and Twitter were excluded from our Most Innovative Companies list, it was Nike that failed to make our ranking. As we explained alongside our 2013 cover story (which featured Serena Williams and Nike CEO Mark Parker):

The folks at Nike were not happy with Fast Company at this time last year. After appearing on our Most Innovative Companies ranking for four years, they weren’t included. Neither were several other perennials, including GE and Disney. It’s not that these businesses suddenly lost their mojo. But in a climate where the velocity of change is accelerating, these companies didn’t have a compelling-enough breakthrough for us to highlight. The companies that did make this year’s list illustrate how in the Age of Flux, continuous improvement, speed of change, and breadth of ambition are more important than ever.

This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.