Google is playing the Pied Piper again with its new social networking platform, and its early converts are ready to bid adieu to Facebook. Not tearfully either
Rahul Bhatia | 07 Jul, 2011
Google is playing the Pied Piper again with its new social networking platform, and its early converts are ready to bid adieu to Facebook.
Before the first post, the first circle, and the first friend, wandering into a social network is a bit like looking at a blank map for the first time. You can see the outline of this unfamiliar land, but none of its detail. And yet, this first glimpse is a delicious moment, for it comes soon after the surprise of merely being present here, and well before the land’s secrets have been revealed. This is the point where you’re done asking ‘where am I?’ and are on to ‘okay, now what?’ So you wander around, poking into caves, brushing aside the foliage, and all the while your feet grow accustomed to the terrain. In explorer terms, this would take months, maybe years. Here? Twenty minutes, tops. Now, a land must have people, so you begin to seek them out. You look for old friends, for new friends, for people you’ve met on other platforms, for people who do not know you. The rules of this land are different; your search for connections could be based on something as substantial as a ‘like’ or an RT on another platform. These connections seem more tenuous than they are—a ‘like’ implies a pulse touched, and an RT, a message relayed with intent. And now, slowly, more and more people you know turn up, not there one minute and here the next, and the limitless stream of developments at the gates of social networks, waiting for us to sign in, and like, and spread, is suddenly here. Suddenly, you’re in the thick of it. You’re a proper resident now.
The intent to settle comes after the willingness to explore. But how much will you explore? Facebook was where old friends dug each other out of memory into the present. It was meant for sharing. Until Twitter came along and made Facebook look like Dear Diary. Twitter, where followers are collected like medals, where The New Yorker writers broadcast, line by line, why they left, where news spreads without verification until it is verified, where early warning systems flourish. Facebook gives you a tightly curated world. Twitter, if anything, lets you see what’s going on inside. For the people who settled here, these worlds took time to build.
Now, once more, you might decide to explore. Is it worth the trouble?
On GigaOM, the tech blog, 77 per cent said they would use Google’s latest social networking toy again. Even though just about every conversation in this new world was about this new world:
‘Why do my +1s not show up on my +1 tab?’ (A real comment on Google+, which goes to show that in new worlds there are new languages to master.)
Yet, most people who took part in GigaOM’s poll said they would return. But why? What for? How can you tell when a thing like this works for you? How can a thing so new make you feel so sure of your intentions when the sort of world you will build on it will take time, and what it contains will take time to be revealed?
WHAT GOOGLE WANTED
A month ago, Eric Schmidt said that Google missed the bus on “the friend thing”. His company had not anticipated the importance of friends. You could believe it. Google’s first attempts were flawed in some way, attempting collaboration but without simplicity, and then sharing, but without privacy. Wave, the collaborative tool, was born with a bang, a nifty audio-visual and a back story. Still not a day old, and it already had a legend. But when it comes to people, as filmmakers will confess, you never know what works. Wave died due to a lack of interest a year later. Now another organisation has taken over development.
The road to the most timely social site is littered with the carcasses of expensive attempts. Only 54 months ago the absurdly dominant South Korean social networking site, CyWorld, targeted the United States for entry. This is not too long ago; that December S Sreesanth danced on a pitch in South Africa. Facebook was the second largest networking site around. MySpace, in first place, had 140 million members. There were prophetic words from a marketing director at CyWorld in The Financial Times: “There is a site for the real you, a rite of passage site that you would join during a particular phase of your life, and the fun, hot, new trend site.” Facebook, he said, fell in the second category. MySpace was in the third, which meant that “people will stop using it after a few months as they get bored or exhausted of the effort of having to maintain ‘cool’ personas”. CyWorld wanted to be in the first category. By 2010, it withdrew from the US. Late in June, News Corporation sold MySpace for $35 million, having bought it earlier for $580 million. Facebook, the “rite of passage site that you would join during a particular phase of your life”, now serves as the ultimate directory of the planet, looking more and more like the site you stay on for the rest of your life.
After Wave and Buzz, which felt like pickup lines, Google+ takes a more serious approach. Steven Levy, a writer for Wired, provides the definitive account of how Google threw itself into the task of making itself more social and getting into the friend thing. ‘Google+,’ he writes, ‘is not a typical release. Developed under the code name Emerald Sea, it is the result of a lengthy and urgent effort involving almost all of the company’s products. Hundreds of engineers were involved in the effort.’
Soon after the launch, the ribbon above Google applications had changed. Users with Google+ accounts saw a notification bar in their Gmail accounts — a courier of Google+ alerts not unlike the numbered bar on a Facebook page. The company now plans to rebrand Picasa and Blogger and bring them within the Google+ fold. The bar stays with you wherever you go. ‘Nonetheless, people at Google feel that retooling to integrate the social element isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity,’ writes Levy. He asked Vic Gundotra, senior vice-president, social, Google, if Google+ was all-or-nothing for the company. Gundotra, who’d seen Microsoft’s dismantling of Lotus’s spreadsheet application, said yes.
There exists a more heightened awareness of the power of change—and its ability to overhaul what appears untouchable today—within companies that create new technologies. In Levy’s account, ‘Gundotra prepared a slide deck that mocked up challenges from Google’s competitors (notably, Facebook), illustrating how each company could turn Google upside down. And vice versa.’ A senior engineer, Amit Singhal, ‘spoke passionately about how the internet was increasingly organised around people, urging that Google dramatically expand its focus to create a hub of personalisation and social activity. Singhal believed that Facebook not only was ahead in that realm, but, worse, it was building an alternative internet with itself at the center… Gundotra convinced Singhal to repeat the rant when the group regathered. The words hit Google’s leaders hard.’ Google, in the role of new media, had disrupted the old in a dramatic way. For a few years now, it has seen a threat on the horizon that could soon loom large.
As the product developed, Levy reports, Google employees who had access to the system echoed concerns once voiced by Wave users: could you make it simpler? In some ways, while Google+ now looks like Facebook without the blue, and feels like Twitter with comments, it is something entirely new. It takes time to get a hang of, but if you’re familiar with social networks, you somehow just ‘get it’. The basic element involves communication: a blank bar that you fill and hit enter. Someone might like it. Someone might have something to say. You have begun broadcasting, and your constituency will eventually respond.
Then come the ‘circles’, basically easy-to-form groups to whom you address specific communication—a message, a picture, a video. It is simply this feature, nothing more, that cuts through the whole morass of privacy intrusions that Facebook has made. For a user of Facebook, the process of sealing privacy leaks involves stumbling upon them first. This new thing, on the other hand, tells you every thing upfront. This offers relief to those who care.
Then there are group video hangouts, and a page that brings your interests to your door.
Already, and it hasn’t been too long, users have begun to understand what it all means, and have begun to discover how they can make it work for them. Just this morning, a writer at The New York Times wrote, ‘Last night a chat room changed my life. But it wasn’t just any chat room. It was a virtual ‘hangout’, the group video chat service that is a prominent feature of Google+… Shortly before bed, I lingered online, checking my various social networking sites when I noticed several friends were in a video chat session on Google+. I put on some pants and clicked my way into the room with six other people… and didn’t leave until nearly 3 in the morning. We spent several hours cracking jokes, making fun of each other’s snacks and welcoming other friends who noticed our group online and dropped in to say hello. At one point, we found YouTube videos with lyrics and turned the chat into an impromptu karaoke room. A few of our other friends dropped in to say hello before making their way offline and heading to bed. One friend, Lindsey, said she’s been hanging out with different groups of friends since 10 pm and later told me she didn’t sign off until close to 5 in the morning.’ Epiphanies like this happened with Facebook, and then with Twitter, when people who roamed those platforms discovered what they were for. Like with ideas, their inherent utility for each of us could be as varied as we wanted them to be.
GigaOM’s Simon Mackie has a feeling that Google+ will ‘find a home in a somewhat unexpected market: the workplace’. ‘You could, for instance, have a Circle for all of your work colleagues, a Circle for your team and then also create ad hoc Circles for project teams as required. This ability to easily control who you share specific pieces of information with is powerful, and very useful in the workplace: you may, for example, want to send an update regarding the status of a project to only those colleagues working on that project. Facebook has tried to give users a similar degree of control over contact management with its Lists feature, but it’s clunky and nowhere near as well implemented or as central to the experience as Circles is; while Google+ is effectively built on top of Circles, Facebook’s Lists feature feels like an afterthought.’ Could this work?
Levy’s report speaks of how Google won’t just mark this down as another failure in the social arena if Google+ fails. An executive tells him that the company is in it “for the long run” because it now recognises that it needs people for growth.
In the last paragraph of his book Googled, Ken Auletta looks at Google through the prism of history and its missed chances, which was the underlying message, the palpable fear evident in Google’s interactions with Levy. ‘Today, Google appears impregnable. But a decade ago so did AOL, and so did the combination of AOL and Time Warner. ‘There is nothing about their model that makes them invulnerable,’ Clayton Christensen, Harvard business historian and author of the seminal book The Innovator’s Dilemma, told me… ‘Lots of companies are successful and are applauded by the financial community,’ Christensen said. ‘Then their stock price stalls because they are no longer surprising investors with their growth. So they strive to grow but forget the principles that made them great—getting into the market quickly, not throwing money at the wrong thing. When you have so much money you become so patient that you wait too long. Again, look at Microsoft. No one can fault them for not investing in growth ideas. But none of these have grown up to be the next Windows.’ Maybe, he added, we are now beginning to ‘see this at Google.’ The company has poured money into YouTube and Android and cloud computing, but has yet ‘to figure out the business model for each.”
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
On the first day, after a friend invited me, there was nothing. There was one word you’d recognise anywhere: ‘profile’. It’s strange: to edit your profile on a new network is like dressing up before guests arrive. It asked where I had lived. There were geographic markers that indicated where exactly. It asked where I had worked.
With all things done, there were friends to find. This process looks so much like Facebook, you forget it works like Twitter. There are no friend requests to accept or deny. People float into your world and out without you knowing. Some I knew from Facebook, some from Twitter, some from a mailing list. I added them all. This can be, according to your point of view, either damaging to your ego (you follow 89 people, with 0 followers at this point), or smart thinking (like announcing your presence at a party). A few ‘posts’ came up. A man I’ve never met and have only spoken briefly with posted pictures of a paint job he had done on a model toy. A writer I’d never met shared a joke. This was familiar. But it was sparse.
On the second day, there were more posts. The people I had populated my world with had come alive at night, and left posts and links with comments attached. It dawned that the network wasn’t just my network anymore; it included my network’s networks. And their networks. And so on.
By the third day, the trickle had become a stream. It had become a whole lot more social. By this time, I wasn’t checking Facebook anymore, apart from dropping in a birthday wish. Twitter visits had plummeted. Now, behind this page, is a stream of current events and memories that doesn’t move quite as fast as Twitter but has a whole lot more people than I’ve ever known. These are people I can go up to and watch wordlessly. Not creepily but in a ‘oh-that-looks-interesting’ kind of way. They don’t have to be my friends.
Sometimes you like to get people out of the way, and focus on what they are doing or saying. It isn’t exactly social, but not everyone’s social on Facebook or Twitter or Orkut. And that’s where Google+ gets it right. More than being social, it makes looking into things a whole lot easier. It helps you share, but it serves, in a way, one of the original service’s oldest purposes: it helps you explore new lands, and find things you never knew you wanted.