The war of the social networks

Facebook, Twitter and, now, Google are dominating the social media landscape -- each in their own way. If you're new to social media, or you're trying to decide which platform is best for you (don't rule out the possibility of all three), then here's a brief summary of each, how they differ, what they offer, and the impact they are currently making, or could potentially make on the market.

Founded: February 2004

The founders: Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes, Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin

Headquarters: Palo Alto, Calif.

Number of users: 750 million+

What is it?

It is the most-used social network in the world, surpassing MySpace in 2008. The social networking platform offers games, a custom e-mail utility, chat (text or video), Groups and photo and video sharing. It also has a geo-location feature called Places. In short, Facebook is a one-stop shop for the best features from older social media platforms like AOL Instant Messanger and MySpace, and the company works day in and day out to create new features, discouraging users from leaving. At its core, Facebook allows users to connect with friends, family and acquaintences in what the company describes as a "trusted environment." Users can interface with people on their own terms by erecting privacy walls that restrict certain types of content from reaching certain individuals or the general public. (Full disclosure: Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.)

How is it different?

Aside from being the most widely used of the three social media platforms, Facebook offers nearly every social media tool available, from geo-location to video chats. However, unlike Twitter, Facebook does not limit posts to 140 characters, and Facebook's privacy settings are not as sleek as Google+'s "circles" functionality. Tracking trends on Facebook is also less straightforward than it is on Twitter. This is due to Facebook's walled-garden approach to user's data. In order to access a Facebook's user's data (this includes search engines), one must log into Facebook.

Dollars and cents

Facebook is touted asthe most highly anticipated IPOs since Google went public in 2004. The company has been wildly successful in pushing targeted ads to users who willingly and eagerly provide highly valuable personal data about themselves every second. And the $500,000 in first-round funding from PayPal's co-founder and one-time CEO Peter Thiel in 2004 has since been blown away by the $27.5 million in third-round funding from big names like Greylock Partners and Maritech Capital Partners. And, if you think that's big, in January Goldman Sachs valued the company at $50 billion, making it more valuable than eBay and Yahoo. At the end of June Facebook was valued at $70 billion. In May, Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg has said Facebook's IPO is "inevitable," but a date still has yet to be set.

Founded: March 2006

The founders: Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Evan Williams, Biz Stone

Headquarters: San Francisco, Calif.

Number of users:165 million*

What is it?

Twitter is a messaging and micro-blogging service that limits users to 140-characters per post. Each message, called a tweet, can be distributed publicly or protected, making it available to a limited number of users or followers.

Messages can be read using Twitter's native interface or by using a variety of third-party applications like TweetDeck, Echofon or Hootsuite. These application-program interfaces, or APIs, can both send and receive tweets, allowing users to sort them by search terms, usernames or hashtags (words or phrases that begin with a "#").

Twitter has been described as a "democratizing force," since it can quickly propel unknown individuals and their causes into the public eye. The service was widely used during the "Arab Spring" uprising, providing access to information that was otherwise unattainable by traditional news media. Celebrity tweeters can also augment a little-known user's message with a re-tweet (think: forward) or a mention -- an acknowledgement of a user's Twitter handle.

How is it different?

Twitter, unlike Facebook and Google+, has not entered the video chat space and, given the nature of the medium, it is not likely to do so anytime soon. Twitter is set apart by its 140-character limit and the number of mobile and desktop applications that can access it. Whether you're on Hootsuite, Echofon or Instagram, you can share via Twitter.

Dollars and cents

Twitter started as a side project of Odeo, a podcasting service. Originally called Twttr, the company has acquired a total of $360 million in funding since 2007, and the rumor mill is rife with talk that Google may acquire the now-popular micro-blogging service. Twitter has made a number of key acquisitions, including TweetDeck and social analytics platform BackType. Twitter's acquisition of these companies, which would otherwise compete with Twitter for revenue, has attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, leading to an investigation. In March, Twitter was valued at $7.7 billion in private trading.

*This is the number of users as of October 2010. The number is estimated to have reached as many as 225 million. However Twitter has not formally endorsed that estimate.

Founded: June 28, 2011

The founders: Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Headquarters: Palo Alto, Calif.

Number of users: TBD

What is it?

Google+ is the youngest of the three social networks, but it is Google's third attempt at a social media platform, following in the wake of Google Buzz and Google Wave -- neither of which became particularly popular. Google+ (read Google Plus) is still in beta, and started as an invitation-only social media service. Like Facebook, Google+ allows users to share, messages, links, photos, videos and their geographic location through a central interface that is tied into Google's popular GMail and search services.

The two most distinct features of Google+ are its "circles," and "hangouts." Circles allow users to limit each post's visibility to individuals or small groups of users, while hangouts is a video chat feature that allows up to ten users to communicate in a video chat room. Early reviews of Google+ have been positive. However the limited beta release has frustrated users eager to communicate with their friends on the new platform.

How is it different?

Google+ is the youngest of the three social media platforms. This means that, while the "circles" and "hangouts" features are both unique, it is likely that new applications will be added over time. For example, while Twitter feeds and Facebook comments can be embedded on other Web sites, Google+ features cannot.

Dollars and cents

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Google is a publicly traded company. The stock price jumped following the launch of Google+, but the parent company is under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission for alleged unfair business practices, namely driving down results from competing search engines like Microsoft's Bing, in its search results. The investigation aside, Google has made a number of acquisitions since its inception, including the mobile platform Android, RSS feed service Feedburner and popular web video database and sharing utility YouTube. Google is also making inroads with non-traditional projects such as renewable fuels and driver-less cars.