The Twitter-Facebook Rivalry Is Here to Stay

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Photo: Twitter, Facebook

Over the weekend, Nick Bilton brought us the clearest picture yet of how much Twitter hates Facebook, and vice versa.

Bilton — who is working on a book about Twitter and is presumably getting leaks from the top of the company — brought us new details of Twitter's failed bid to acquire Instagram before it was sold to Facebook for $1 billion. Instagram founder Kevin Systrom, he writes, told California regulators that he had not received any other offers for Instagram before Facebook's bid, despite having talked with Twitter executives about a $525 million cash-and-stock acquisition just three weeks earlier.

The difference between Systrom's private dealings and "the statements he made under oath," Bilton implies, might expose the Instagram co-founder to legal action, up to and including perjury claims.

It's exceedingly likely that nothing real will come of this other than maybe a vanity lawsuit or two. Twitter's overtures to Instagram probably don't rise to the legal standard of an "offer," and I don't buy Bilton's suggestion that, given Facebook's post-IPO stock troubles, Twitter's $525 million offer may have ultimately represented a greater value to Instagram shareholders.

The real story here is that Twitter and Facebook's rivalry is quickly rising to the level of a generational tech feud — the kind that once existed between Apple and Microsoft and that now seems to exist between Microsoft and Google.

As the younger, smaller, and privately held social media company, Twitter is clearly the underdog in the rivalry. And Facebook is winning most of the actual victories, like getting Instagram and, you know, having a market cap of $57 billion. But Twitter still has ammo. Whether by rolling out sepia-toned filters of its own, taking away Instagram's ability to format photos correctly on Twitter, removing its find-my-friends API access, or leaking sour-grapes details to Nick Bilton, it is showing that it isn't ready to stand down.

Most tech rivalries end up being good for consumers. Apple's war with Microsoft led to better operating systems, cheaper prices, and faster innovation than would have occurred in peacetime. Apple's rivalry with Samsung, while occasionally dragged down into the world of patent lawsuits, has likely made your phone better.

But, so far, the nascent Twitter-Facebook war hasn't done much in the way of actual product improvement, unless you count calling your photo filter "Cool" instead of "Hudson." In fact, it has actively hurt consumers of both companies by removing some features that ease the transition between them. But in the coming months, let's hope that the sour-grapes bickering and specious perjury accusations will fade and give rise to some real, productive battles.