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Google’s + size problem

June 29, 2011

Last night, I was lucky enough to receive an invite to Google+ from a Twitter acquaintance who had 500 to blow. After calling my brother and discussing the potential ramifications of Google’s new social networking tool and its impact on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media, I sat down to dig in with it.

The only problem was there wasn’t much to dig into, as none of my other friends were actually on the service yet. To solve this, I sent out 27 invites (I still have 470-some to offer) and decided to keep clicking around. I looked at the Hangout feature, but I didn’t have anyone to hang out with. I checked out the Twitter-like feed, but there was nobody to follow. And I looked at Sparks, but I didn’t have anyone to share what I am reading with just yet.

While I was waiting for something, anything, to happen on Google+, I went to Facebook to pressure some of the people I’d sent invites to, hoping they would join and there would be some activity so I could see just how well this supposedly remarkable social network operates. The reaction I got from several people (and these are people who care more about their Klout scores and their Tumblrs than they do about box scores and the front page of the newspaper) was, “What’s Google+?”

This reaction indicates that Google has a three-fold problem:

  1. It wasn’t first.
  2. Only hyper-connected people want a new version of Facebook.
  3. It’s difficult to interact with anyone outside your circles.

I’ll address these one-by-one, but I suspect the first one is going to be the biggest hurdle Google has to somehow leap. Google+ is an outright shot at Facebook — an attempt to succeed in areas where Zuck and the gang can’t or won’t, primarily privacy. The Circles idea ensures that Mom doesn’t see those drinking pictures and that your girlfriend doesn’t see those embarrassing messages from your dad.

While this is potentially genius and let’s the user easily choose who sees what, the problem is people are accustomed to the Facebook model. They have a history with the blue-lined pages and, as with any history, they have had both good times and bad times with it. But most users simply haven’t had enough problems with privacy to initiate a break with Facebook. They have friends lists and photo albums there that they don’t want to transfer and besides, it always seems incredibly difficult to make a new start when there’s something relatively comfortable and familiar available.

Unless Facebook makes a giant mistake in the next few weeks, Google+ is going to have a slow start with a few rabid converts, then a slow incubation period, then a boom in 18 to 24 months. In the best case scenario, Google+ would grow like Twitter, which took two years or so to develop a critical mass and then another year or so for people to understand.

But like Twitter when it emerged, Google+ is on the radars of hyper-connected people (read: media types who spend all day checking Twitter) who see the chance to replicate the face-to-face social experience on technology without the hoodied specter of Zuckerberg creeping on them or potentially sell their information. Not that many people care about that, though, and it’s not that they’re unconnected or oblivious in any way, it’s just that with Facebook they have a hyper-mainstream product that they are familiar with and all their friends use. Google+ represents the niche competitor to that for now, and needs to understand that and find a way to utilize it’s “underdog” status.

One thing that + doesn’t have going for it is the ability to connect with people outside your circles. Even as it offers the basic features of Facebook, Skype and Twitter minus wrapped up into one basic package, it’s extremely difficult to interact with people you don’t know, which is a major part of the social media concept. You have a circle, but with +, as far as I can tell so far, it’s difficult to expand that circle and make new contacts.

The primary question that the Facebook versus Google+ battle will answer is whether the Internet Generation wants a new kind of communication (see: Facebook) or wants to use technology to retain the same cliques and communication manners humanity always has (Google+).

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