Dear Lifehacker, I know a bit about all the different social networks out there, but I don't want to keep up with a separate profile for all of them. Which ones should I use and which ones can I ignore? Thanks, Broken Social Network Scene
The last time we tackled this issue, the social networking world was quite different. Google Buzz was still a thing, Instagram was eight months away from existing, and the mobile revolution was still in its glory days. Things have changed.
This is part of the social network world so you should keep that in mind when choosing a service. We use these apps and sites because we like the communities that surround them, so they will inevitably change. We'll look at which service is good for what type of content and activity here in 2013, but as with anything on the internet, don't count on it to stay that way forever.
What it's good for: Family photos and videos, personal updates, chronicling life changes, and sharing interesting links.
Where it falls short: Up-to-the-minute news, one-way follows for individuals.
When Facebook introduced its new Timeline profile layout, the site became a sort of personal scrapbook that allows you to record everything that happens to you. The site also has over a billion users worldwide, which overshadows the user base of every other network on this list. If you know a person's name, chances are you can connect with them on Facebook.
Sharing all of your personal life events, updates and photos is great, but don't expect to amass much of a "following" per se. Facebook added one-way follow functionality without creating a page around the time Google+ came out, but adoption is a little scattershot.
What it's good for: One-way following, photography, videos, long-form text content, selective sharing, and animated GIFs.
Where it falls short: Sharing with friends and family, and fast news.
Google+ is a relative newcomer to the field. It was first introduced a couple years ago, yet by some accounts, it has already outpaced Twitter to be the second largest social networks. (How active those users are is more debatable.) The strongest feature is the site's powerful tools for organising your contacts and controlling what shows up in your feed.
Unlike most other services, you can't add people without sorting them into some category. You're given a few by default, but you can also create them on the fly. This means that, from the start, you're already approaching your follow lists as though some feeds have more priority than others (which they do). If you're looking to carefully curate a casual feed, Google+ is the way to go.
It has also done a fine job of attracting a lot of visual content producers with its big, attention-grabbing posts. Photography, videos, artwork, and basic blog-style posts with some conditional formatting all regularly show up in seasoned Google+ veterans' feeds. There are also communities for tech-friendly topics such as Raspberry Pi or system builders. If you do something creative or are involved in tech, you can probably find a community for you.
What it's good for: Instant news, site updates, breaking news, and quick links.
Where it falls short: Long-form anything and reading everything in your feed.
Twitter is the odd-man out in social networks because it's defined less by what it is and more by what it isn't. Twitter uses a 140-character limit to make messages readable on as many mediums as possible without getting bogged down by bandwidth or device constraints. While most clients will show photos, videos, and article snippets inline, tweets can be accessed on phones with nothing more sophisticated than SMS capabilities.
Twitter also uses a real-time display of information. Unlike Facebook or Google+, every person you follow and everything they tweet is given equal priority. If you follow a couple of hundred users, then you'll see reactions as they happen. This makes it perfect for anything happening live. Informal reactions to the newest episode of a show, big news occasions (Twitter just loves elections), and sporting events.
It's also great and simultaneously terrible when breaking news occurs. As the events of the Boston Marathon showed, information can travel very quickly across Twitter, whether it's verified or not. As one Community writer put it: "Twitter does its best work five minutes after a disaster, and its worst in the twelve hours after that."
Still, flaws and all, it's really cool to be able to follow and communicate in some small way with TV show writers, movie stars, journalists, politicians, and fellow lifehackers in a single medium where everyone is equal.
What it's good for: Focused, social content. Photos, GIFs, blog posts. NSFW content.
Where it falls short: News, connecting with celebrities and sites.
Tumblr has carved out a niche for itself with a greater focus on the content aspects of the service than the social emphasis most other sites take. Perhaps most notably, if you're used to other blogging services, comments are not enabled by default. You can reblog stuff other people share and add your own captions, but feedback is not generally highlighted as a primary function.
This puts the focus both on the quality of the content itself and sharing it with others. Curation is the name of the game and often a successful Tumblr can be made just by being someone who's good at finding cool things to click on, no commentary needed. Just be sure to give credit where it's due. Building a following on the backs of other people's work without contributing anything of your own or linking back is a great way to breed ill will among the very artists you're mooching from.
Outside of these main four, there are also specialised networks that are devoted to a certain type of content. Instagram and Vine fall into this category. Unlike other entries on this list, these sites don't have a wide variety of options for sharing different types of content. If you want to share videos, YouTube is the place to go. For filtered photos, Instagram leads the pack. Snapchat excels at sharing images that you don't want to save permanently (though you shouldn't use it to share pictures of a sensitive nature).
Ultimately, while social networks are still proliferating, they've moved away from being carbon copies of each other. Facebook is arguably the only one remaining that's looking to connect you primarily with your friends and family. Google+ wants to connect you with other people across the internet, Twitter wants to connect you with what's happening right now, and Tumblr wants to connect you with cool stuff. Each niche has its users and, when used appropriately, they can all provide tangible value.
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