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Google Plus, Social Platforms, and Friending vs. Following

I have now been on Google+ since a few days after it opened. In general I am in accord with most of the early reviews, which praised the clean, quick interface and the ease of using Circles to create groups of friends. (Unlike users in some more recent stories, I am not overwhelmed by making circles, or by the number of them that I have; I think Google+ makes it pretty simple to see what you want, when you want— and, more importantly, to control who sees what you post). This seems like a significant improvement over Facebook, at least for me.

However, after a short rush at the beginning, I find that very few people I know are really actively using the site. If I want to share something— and I actually want people to see it— I still need to post it to Facebook (or, to a lesser extent, Twitter, which I will come back to). This is even more true if I want any kind of feedback or comments on what I post.

So, all this prompts me to ask what it is that draws people in to using a particular social network or social media application over others.

One factor is certainly the Interface— to a point. For people who pay attention to/care about such things, the Google+ interface beats Facebook hands down (or, at least, I think so). It looks better, and more importantly, it works better. The ability to sort your feed easily, at the top level, is a major step in the right direction. I both miss stuff and get bombarded with things I don’t want on Facebook all the time.

But it seems clear that many people do not care about this stuff, at least not very much. Frankly, if they did, MySpace never would have gotten off the ground, and it certainly still wouldn’t have 50 million users. If you aim a product at people who are going to use it professionally, these kinds of things are vital; if it is a product that is meant, precisely, to appeal to your grandma and your little brother and your second cousin in Vancouver, etc., then the calculation changes. For many people, maybe most, changing over to a new product, or a new version of an old one, is enough of a pain to keep them using things that designers and professionals loathe. This explains why so many people still have WIndows XP (or even older versions), and why INternet Explorer 6 managed to remain the top browser for so long. It is also why IT departments feel despair at getting other people within an organization to switch from one application or service to another. So, in general I don’t think the interface improvements of Google+ are going to pull a lot of people in, at least by themselves.

The obvious factor in all this is, of course, the idea of critical mass— the fact that, for social media more than for almost anything else, if matters to every user that other people use the service to. As I noted above, the biggest problem with Google+ for me right now is that few people I know actually are doing anything with it (I do get lots of content from people I don’t really know, a point to which I will return below). For these kinds of services, it is not simply a matter of jumping on the bandwagon; your actual utility as a user depends primarily on the presence of other users. (This is why the interface thing doesn’t matter more; the very nature of Facebook dictates that most of its users will be people whose online behavior is strongly path-dependent).

But critical mass alone can’t be the answer here, because obviously there was a point at which MySpace seemed to have it and Facebook didn’t. Facebook, for whatever reason, was able to overcome that problem. I have to think that some part of that had to be about interface, because Facebook was a clear and significant improvement in that regard. But, as I’ve been saying, for a lot of people I don’t think that is the main issue, at least not in the sense that Facebook was a better looking, quicker way to do the same things.

The really significant improvement in Facebook over MySpace was that it moved your Friends’ activity to the front. Obviously, you could call this an interface issue, but I think it represents something deeper than that. Back when it was the most popular thing out there, I often compared MySpace to Geocities; to me, at least, it seemed like a quicker, easier way to build a vanity page for yourself. In other words, MYspace (sic) was about you, about giving users a way to present themselves to the world. That’s also why it had options that Facebook doesn’t— options that are part of what often made it ugly and slow, like custom backgrounds and the ability to embed a music player streaming your favorite artists. It’s also why your blog was a separate section, a click away from your main page and something you could ignore entirely if you chose. As much as we talk about Facebook playing into the “age of curation” online, the fact remains that when you log in you see other people’s content first. Facebook therefore seems more about communication, connecting with other people, than about self-presentation pure and simple.

So, what makes things more difficult for Google+ not simply that Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) are already very popular. The problem is that because they are so popular&— and because of a number of technical innovations along with the general expectation that web-based services make an API available to developers— Facebook and Twitter have gone beyond services that people use by themselves and become platforms upon/through which people use other products and services. If you sign up for a new “social” service (I, for instance, am using or at least trying out Tunerfish, Percolate, Last fm, and Goodreads, to name a few), you take it for granted that these services will integrate with Facebook, Twitter, or both. If only my friends on Goodreads see what I am reading, that is less useful to me than if I can also send those updates out to Facebook, where many more people will see them. Of course, many people may want to create silos like this, and not make those links; but if the functionality isn’t here at all then people are a lot less likely to use the service, or will use it less often. If I like a video on YouTube, I’m a lot less likely to share it with others (and will send it to fewer people) if I have to email them the link. Facebook and Twitter have become, to a large extent, the default way in which we share things online, and as such other services that allow us to find, aggregate, curate, or otherwise interact with online content have to allow us to channel that content into these key services.

So, one important questions seems to be whether Google+ can become a platform in the same way as Facebook and Twitter. To answer that, I think we have to look at why it is that both of those services have managed to serve in this role, at the same time, while continuing to grow. The (pretty obvious) answer to that is that they do slightly different things, or allow us to communicate in slightly different ways. This can be summed up as the difference between “friending” and “following.” In Facebook, your communication is “duplex” (technically, it would be “full duplex”— that is, both directions, at the same time). There is only one kind of relationship, and to form one is to talk to someone as well as to hear what they have to say. On Twitter, the communication is, at least primarily, “simplex”— in one direction only. You “follow” people who may not choose to follow you back (despite the best hopes of all the “social marketing experts” who have decided to follow me), and (unless you choose to “protect” them, your tweets are broadcast to anybody and everybody. Following somebody doesn’t give you any kind of special access to them; it just makes it more convenient to hear what they are saying.

Google+ combines both of these models of communication, in that you can’t both friend and follow; likewise, you can make your posts available only to friends, or to anyone who chooses to follow you. You can have different levels of communication with different groups. This, rather than Circles in themselves, seems to me to be what could differentiate Google+. But what that means is that, rather than trying to be as different from Facebook and Twitter as they are from each other, Google+ is trying to combine their functions. This could, theoretically, not simply make it better as a social network, but more importantly make it better as a platform. Rather than having to choose which service to post content to depending on who you want to see it, you would only have to choose a level of visibility within a single service— Google+.

The question then becomes how many people would actually find this integration attractive. I often find myself posting things to both Facebook and Twitter, or having to choose which is the more appropriate venue, but I’m not sure how many others are in that boat. The fairly massive user gap between Twitter and Facebook (100 million vs. 750 million) suggests that far more people are interested in the closed, duplex relationship model than in the open, simplex one. If that’s true, then the number of people for whom the need to choose between them is a problem is probably much smaller. If that is true, then Google+ might appeal primarily to those in that relatively small group— or more people will have to be convinced that both models are useful to them, and that they need a single service that can integrate them.

The alternative is that Google+ will specialize— that is, that it will develop into a place where it is easier to do a few specific things, like share videos or photos (YouTube and Picasa integration makes this especially likely). If it goes in that direction, it will never rival Facebook— but Google claims it has no desire to do so in any case.

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