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.