Whither Google+?

Google+ clearly stands on the shoulders of giants. It has learned valuable lessons from the current giants of social media, Facebook and Twitter (see video here). It combines a Facebook-like layout that prominently features a newsfeed and friends, with Twitter’s ease of following. It many ways, it feels like a buttoned-down Facebook, from its simple Google-like design to its somewhat less-entangled circles. It also has what may be it’s “killer app”: Google Hangout. G+ clearly has the edge when it comes to face-to-face video conferencing.

So why does it not seem to be taking off? Google+ quickly gained followers and visits after its summer 2011 launch. These spiked when Google dropped the invitation-only mechanism for joining G+. But visits have since faded:

One obvious issue is a lack of participation. There simply is more critical mass on Facebook and Twitter, where the typical user sees rapid-fire updates and interactions with friends and followers. G+ doesn’t seem to have gotten there yet.

G+ also lacks a certain “playfulness” that Facebook has embraced. Facebook is very good at “shipping product” in the form of new features, including games and other apps. This keeps users engaged. G+ does offer a small selection of games, but regardless, G+ may not be the most “fun” social network out there.

However, it may be the most useful. G+ has a big ace in the hole: the combined weight of a galaxy of Google applications, such as Google Docs, Gmail, the Internet’s premiere search engine, and did we mention Google Hangout? G+ has finally made video chat a think of ease, seamlessly integrating it with a power social network. This satisfies a network’s need to be meaningful and to allow transparent collaboration. It has been invaluable for this class. As Josephine Dorado puts it, G+ is part of Google’s “collaborative system,” which may be more than the sum of its parts. In this sense, G+ is just a really smart fit for the things we want to do online.

Finally, is it even fair to judge G+ against dedicated social platforms such as Facebook? G+ may not have to be a destination. Everyone uses Google, and when they do, they will see that black bar with the red G+ notification alert. As Tom Anderson, MySpace’s founder, points out, you are going to end up on G+ whether you want to or not. It’s just there in a very functional, utilitarian manner. Is it flashy? No. Is it sustainable on some level, even if not spectacularly? The answer is yes.

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MySpace founder’s defense of Google+

Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson, the founder and former president of MySpace, has a lot to say in praise of Google+. Essentially, he thinks Google+ avoids falling into the “vs. Facebook” trap, as MySpace did. (For more on how that social media “fight of the decade” turned out, visit this post.)

Anderson wrote this piece for TechCrunch not long after Google+ launched in summer 2011. In it, he asks: “Is ‘social’ in Google’s DNA?” Anderson points out that Google has been built on algorithms, millions of which go into PageRank, the engine that fuels Google searches. But along comes Google+, and suddenly Google must cede some of this computer-control to users. Interestingly, Facebook is far more algorithm-controlled than most users think. Its newsfeed is powered by code that ensures you don’t really see everything your friends post, and they don’t see everything you post. Of course, you can change these settings and take more control, but Facebook is legendary for its opaque user interface. Few people know about “lists” (similar to G+ “circles”) or how to manage their news feeds. Anderson worries that Google will eventually add more algorithms behind the scenes in G+, chipping away at user control.

There are more insights in one of Anderson’s subsequent articles, this one appearing a couple months after the G+ launch. In this article, titled “How Google+ Will Succeed and Why You’ll Use it Whether you Want to or Not,” Anderson makes two key points about Google+ and social networks in general.

First off, Facebook and Twitter both succeeded, in his view, by capturing small markets. It went from one university to the next, then to community colleges, then high schools, then companies such as Apple. These small communities became evangelists for the social network. This follows Boyd’s arguments about the passion of early adopters. There is a trade off here. As a product grows beyond largely unprofitable niche groups, it tends to lose the passion of these early adopters. This may have been true for Facebook, but obviously there were enough communities and social connections there to allow Facebook to become self-sustaining and keep growing.

G+ also is capturing small communities, such as techies, “Facebook fed-ups,” photographers, journalists and certain celebrities. It has become a key platform for media pundits, such as Jim Romenesko, and tech pundits, such as Pete Cashmore of Mashable.

Why does this matter? Because unlike a private-oriented social network (Facebook), a public network like G+ (with its Twitter side) doesn’t require that your friends join for it to be useful and engaging. All it requires are frequent posters or “content creators.”

Anderson’s second key point about G+ is that it doesn’t have to be a destination in the way that Facebook is. G+, like all of Google’s applications, is just always there, in that little black bar at the top of your browser window. You will always see when you have notifications. You may not intend to go there, but G+ is where you are. In a recent G+ Hangout, Josephine Dorado, our Collaboration in Networked Environments professor, depicted this as an emerging “collaborative system” that Google is creating. It’s all there in the cloud: G+, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Groups, etc. Instead of a single destination, you have a range of collaborative tools available wherever you go on the web.

From a purely collaborative standpoint, G+ may already have won, you just don’t know it yet.