When Google launched Google+ (somewhere in 2011, after its earlier Buzz debacle), Facebook had already established itself as numero uno in social space. But then, Google being Google, we expected them to pull something new out of the hat and catch up – Facebook wasn’t entirely out of reach yet. Obviously, just another social network clone wouldn’t cut it. Something had to be different.
The way I looked at it then, I thought the difference was clear, and it was apparent in the DNA of both companies. Facebook was an ego-centric network – people who already knew each other could easily connect online to form a network, and then share information and content, and grow their network organically. Google+ was the reverse (given Google’s search and information legacy) – people were looking for content, and social networks could emerge around common interests. I had written about this difference in this earlier article – The difference between Facebook and Google+.
Both companies were looking to find that commercial sweet spot at the intersection of social and content, where user needs could be supplemented with the right context, content and social affirmation. Facebook was reaching out to that intersection inside-out and Google+ was looking to reach the same sweet spot outside-in. Certainly, there was and is a good case to be made for both approaches. In fact, Twitter had already occupied the other end of the spectrum from Facebook – free flowing content in a more open social network model and interest groups emerging in real-time around hashtags. There was definitely a space in between Twitter and Facebook that offered great commercialization potential – social networks reaching beyond friends and family but not as ephemeral as the ones constantly getting formed and destroyed on Twitter, content that went beyond interpersonal exchanges but not as wildly divergent and unstructured as that on Twitter. It was this space that Google+ could have tried to carve out and own. Circles was a good start.
Circles (in Google+) was a malleable concept – it could accommodate close-knit personal relationship based social networks as well as group networks formed around shared interests. Its malleability probably led Google to believe that people would eventually come over to the platform that allowed them to manage their entire spectrum of social networks at one place. YouTube was a good example – personal videos shared privately with near and dear ones and other kinds of videos broadcast to larger audiences, all on the same platform. Couldn’t that be replicated for photos? For all kinds of information sharing, in general? Everybody had a Gmail account anyway. It was just a matter of time. If people could move from Orkut to Facebook, they could move from Facebook to Google+ too, given all the goodies that were on offer. They could move from Twitter too, personal and public walls at the same place. Google+ could out-facebook Facebook. Google+ could out-twitter Twitter.
In hindsight, we can wonder – was this the point where Google lost its plot? Did they try to do too much – and end up pushing themselves into the perceived “winner takes all” corner? Did they underestimate the stickiness and network effects of a well-established social network? Did they goof up on their core differentiation, other items notwithstanding? Did they unknowingly shift their path to that golden content-intersects-social egg from outside-in to inside-out and thereby mutate into another Facebook clone? If Google had acquired Twitter, would they have been forced to take a different trajectory? I believe so.
While Google+ lost its way, Facebook continued to be true to its ego-centric core. Both Whatsapp and Instagram (the big ticket acquisitions) were true to its central objective – providing people effective channels to share and discuss with their immediate social networks. Pages. Games. Books. Photos. Messenger. Sure, there were some hiccups too – their delay on building a good mobile offering and increasing clutter probably resulted in them losing some bit of their “cool” quotient to other social network players. But they have been true to their core DNA. It shows in their suite of offerings.
On the other hand, Google+ started getting obsessed with linking user identities from across multiple products to a single real user profile. Without a common real user profile, how could the forces of “social” be brought to bear upon all the applications that now sat under the Google+ umbrella? Unwittingly, Google was copying and facing off with Facebook on the Facebook side of the spectrum. Google Photos. Facebook Photos. Hangouts. Messenger. Google Pages. Facebook Pages. Similar applications for the same audience, with the same use cases. But Facebook had the clear upper hand in this fight – they had the social network. Google could have avoided this fight completely. They should have started from the Twitter side of the spectrum.
Google+ Photos – a good place to store your photos, but what can you do with those photos – except sharing them on Facebook? Google never built a use case around its original differentiating strategy, photos that represented common interests, around which interest groups could organically emerge. Pinterest went ahead and occupied that space. If Google+ had stayed true to their DNA and focused on creating niche content-driven emergent social networks, Photos would have automatically evolved into Pinterest.
Hangouts – an excellent product, but who can you talk to? Friends and family are on Whatsapp/Facebook Messenger anyway, and customers and office colleagues don’t prefer connecting with Google+ ids. Hangouts on Air had/ has the potential to develop into a revolutionary public/interest group collaboration platform (a legitimate super-kid of YouTube and Hangouts). I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody focuses on and takes over this space soon.
There is plenty of potential still left in this space, beyond the applications currently on offer. Take TripAdvisor for example. It has evolved into a credible platform for travelers to share and consume content and collaborate on travel interests. Now add Hangouts, Photos, Blogs to the mix and imagine the richness of context and social networks that can emerge around travel use cases. Extend the same logic to Art, Hobbies, Social Work, Education, Agriculture. We are surrounded by contexts where we do form social networks around shared interests, that are ephemeral to start with but eventually crystallize into something more permanent and meaningful.
Some farmers in India, across district and state boundaries, have formed communities using Whatsapp groups to discuss and share best practices. But they had to build these communities manually, organically. Can Google+ create an option where a farmer can broadcast his message to all other farmers in his district, who are growing the same crop? Can a social network emerge instantaneously around this broadcasted message? Why not?
If they don’t, someone else surely will.