Google Plus Gets a +1

Note: This is a long read, but if you make it to the end, I’d appreciate your comments :)

Google+ is the latest social offering from Google. It was launched end June, and has had a rapid ramp-up with an estimated user base in the millions within days of launching. The first impression the first-time users have with Google+ is that is looks and acts very much like Facebook. Its three column layout and clean minimalistic design is a throwback to Facebook, as is its +1 button. However, the comparison quickly ends there. Unlike Facebook, Google+ takes a radically different approach to sharing and connecting with people.

Google+ is centered around the idea of overlapping circles of people and relationships, a relatively small yet substantially important difference from Facebook’s social model. Google+ takes its inspiration from the fact that most of us have segmented social relationships. Think of your work colleagues, university friends, friends and family members – all are generally segmented with little social overlap. With traditional social networks, photos, videos and status updates are shared with little regard to the fact that these circles don’t really overlap in the real world. Google+ aims to bridge this glaring gap with their social network.

Meaningful Relationships

Friendships, follows and now, circles, are three of the most commonly used online social-network models. The evolution of these models imply a level of sophistication in our understanding of the relationships between individuals and between groups of people.

Friendships are, of course, the most easily understood model; they are symmetrical one-to-one relationships between two people and attempt to identify with real world relationships. The model, however, is a grossly simplified caricature of real world relationships. In the real world, relationships are never so boolean or so starkly black and white; real world relationships actually exist in a continuum of gray. For example, one don’t just exist as a friend; one exist as a good friend, or as a passing acquaintance, or even a best friend, or in some cases, a friendemy. While these relationships are one-to-one, the strength of the relationship is not immediately commutative. The view from one side of a relationship is not the same as the view from the other side of the relationship, and as both perspectives evolve, the strength of the bond connecting the two people evolves as well.

Relationships are complex beasts, and one-on-one relationships are even more so because one cannot reduce them to statistical likelihoods (as politicians may do with large demographics) or influence them with a standard algorithmic approach (as celebrities do with their fanbase). Each party in a one-on-one relationships continuously feeds on the responses the other party provides and they themselves give. The fact that relationships evolve and retain past memories makes them both fluid AND complex beasts, leading to a far more complicated dynamics then one could have imagined.

Those seeking to understand social dynamics spend a significant amount of time grokking social scenarios. The preoccupation of adolescent teenagers in gossiping about their peers is a mechanism allowing them to understand social dynamics through information sharing (it should be noted that some of us never grow out of this behavior). The preoccupation of so many adults in following wildly exaggerated television soap operas and TV serials is a mechanism allowing them to process social interactions in their own lives.

Entire human lifespans are spent trying to understand people and relationships, and we still get it wrong many years later in life. I suspect that at some point we just give up trying to understand and just start living life with what works so far.

“Show me a young Conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.”

My hypothesis is that we grow conservative as we grow older because we have given up on trying to understand. There is some empirical data that supports this notion: older people consistently poll as socially conservative while liberals consistently poll as socially open. My guess is that older people are comfortable with specific social models, with specific social scenarios and have accepted underlying assumptions that work in these settings. Introducing new dynamics to social models requires re-examination of accepted belief systems, which is a difficult proposition at best.

Facebook

Facebook’s friendship model is the prototypical simplified model of real world relationships. It is boolean in the sense that I can either choose to add somebody as a friend or I choose not to. Once I have added a friend, their updates become part of my news feed stream regardless of how well I may know them (or in reverse, they see my updates regardless of how well they may know me). Facebook’s system works well when you are interested in everything your friends are up to. It doesn’t quite make the cut when your interest changes with different people or with circles of friends, as tends to be the case with many people. It is for this reason that Facebook’s friendship model is broken: it simply does not explicitly take into account the rich, sophisticated and multi-hued nature of one-on-one relationships.

Common social denominators – birthdays, travel pictures, parties, photos – take precedence in the newsfeed. Poking somebody on Facebook is “staying in touch”. Liking something is “smiling” at a comment. While there is actually nothing wrong with this approach, it only works well for certain demographics: teenagers and young college going students for whom, Facebook is a perfect map of their lives – open, shared and rapidly evolving with strong social pressures towards larger social circles and the desire to build social capital with little cost.

For the rest of us, life is far more varied and interesting then the common denominators. Experiences are colored by the little nuances and hues that are only of interest to small groups of people. Malaysians instinctively understand this. Our mamak culture revolves around “hanging out” with small sets of friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and other groups with shared interests. In the real world, its rare that we cross pollinate as Facebook’s model suggests. In fact, we do the exact opposite – our social groups remain discrete and disconnected from each other. Cross pollination rarely happens and for good reason: interests in these separate groups are different as are social structures, shared values and most importantly, expectations. Facebook’s flat social model does not represent the rich social network diversity we see in the real world.

Perhaps the most interesting evidence in the favor of the argument I make above is Facebook Groups. Introduced six months ago, it has seen shockingly fast adoption with over 50 million groups already created. Assuming an average of 20 people per group with a overlap factor of 60%, that’s an approximately 400 million people who have segmented their Facebook identity into individual groups. That’s a huge non-trivial number. Even if you don’t agree with the numerical assumptions made, plug in any other figure and you will still end up with some large number. In fact, any number above 10 million is enough to demand serious re-examination of the existing social model.

The second big problem with Facebook is that it is a closed social network. Facebook’s execution with its world-class technical staff has been nothing less then stellar, but the result has effectively turned its network into an island within the open seas of the Internet. Its approach is akin to the vendor-lockin strategy made famous by the desktop software industry, but given the network effect of 700 million people, it has come far closer and to a far greater extent in achieving this compared to previous attempts by other software giants. This creates a real and immediate problem for the otherwise open Internet.

User registration and authentication is locked within its network. Content in the form of photos, videos and blog posts (Facebook Notes) are Facebook’s to keep. There are multiple privacy related concerns and issues. Exporting personal data is relatively difficult for Facebook users. Pushing Facebook content to other sites, again, is a non-trivial exercise – anybody who has built on Facebook API’s know how fragile the API’s are. Widely adopted Internet content consumption standards, RSS and Atom, are not available in Facebook.

Previous to Facebook, one would previously publish blog posts for everybody else to read, upload photos and videos for everybody to view and comment on. On Facebook, one does these activities with the audience being Facebook friends, at least by default. Open publishing is a no-go on Facebook’s platform, if not by design then at least by culture.

Twitter

Twitter took a different approach to Facebook’s content sharing network. It saw an opportunity in leveraging the short messaging system (SMS) and applying it to groups of people  (as opposed to the traditional one-on-one nature of SMS). It popularized the follow model, in which one person is followed by any number of other people without any consent required from the parties involved (private Twitter accounts are effectively one-on-one Facebook-type relationships).

Twitter’s follow model changed the dynamic of who was listening and who was talking. Facebook required both parties in a relationship to acknowledge the relationship. Twitter only required one party to make the decision to acknowledge the relationship, and the other party could not reciprocate without any adverse social fallout.

This form of non-symmetrical unbalanced relationships more correctly resemble real world relationships. Social animals – celebrities, politicians, divas – would have thousands following them, but would not need to reciprocate by following back. In fact, a number of people know more people then the people who know them. Organizational charts make this reasoning obvious:

Here, there is a good chance Private A knows Private B, Sergeant A, Sergeant B,  Captain A, Colonel A, Colonel B and the General. The same goes Private B. However, there is an equally good chance that none of the captains or the colonels or the general know the privates. This is intuitively understandable – we generally know people higher up the social food chain, but we generally don’t know (and don’t need to know) people much lower on the social food chain.

And so it is on the online world. We follow the people we know, but they are not required to respond in return. This is not possible in Facebook because Facebook requires a one-on-one relationship to be acknowledged by both parties (Facebook’s fix was to create fan pages, which only works in specific scenarios).

This has led to interesting online dynamics. First is that, by far and large, popular Twitterers don’t get popular just because they are already popular. They get popular because others on Twitterverse get to know them through the quality of their tweets. The idea of re-sharing content (or “retweeting”, in Twitter parlance) is an inherent aspect of Twitter’s follow model implementation.

Twitter didn’t originally build retweet mechanism, or even think of it – its users did. For content that Twitter users liked, they would retweet by appending RT before the tweet message and sending that message (along with the original tweeter’s handle) to their set of followers. Those that originally post great content get rewarded by increased visibility through the retweet mechanism and in a perfect illustration of positive feedback systems at work, the higher the visibility of retweeted content, the resulting reach of the original poster is increased in turn. As such, by rewarding those who share great content, the follow model has turned out to be a far more efficient mechanism for content distribution on social networks. People share content because they want to, but people reshare because they choose to.

Secondly, Twitter’s social model is flat and shallow, but intentionally so. Its structure and design is meant to allow Twitterers to share thoughts, ideas, videos and photos quickly and with minimal friction. Like Facebook, Twitter’s success stemmed from opening up its API’s early on and allowing third party software vendors build and integrate on its system. This was a deliberate product design decision. By allowing fostering third party developer ecosystem, Twitter users were not forced to use Twitter’s interface and could use any number of third party products.

For example, mobile users could use certainly use SMS but they could also use multiple native applications built by third party developers on the iPhone, Android, Nokia and Windows Mobile platforms. The same applied to Mac, Windows and Linux users. Importantly, Twitter also provided web friendly API’s which allowed web developers to easily build web applications that send and receive tweets (and so, allowed content sites integrate re-tweet buttons to increase visibility of the content).  In contrast to Facebook, Twitter’s network was much more open by default and as such, they effectively reduced the level of friction experienced by users in leveraging its platform.

The real time social network Twitter pioneered matched up perfectly, timing wise, with the the rise of real time photo, video and location sharing through the Internet. Mobile phones with GPS, good quality photo and videos capabilities were coming on to the market just when Twitter was providing the natural bridge from SMS to the rest of the Internet.

This has led to interesting innovations in the industry. One company developed real time streaming photo capabilities, especially useful in rapidly changing environments such as social unrest and uprisings of the sort we saw in the Middle East. Others yet saw possibilities in leveraging the public nature of Twitter to projecting a more human face to their corporations. CEO’s now use Twitter to share latest developments in their company to their thousands of followers. Other companies saw opportunities in providing brand sentiment analysis and collaborative customer service tools.

LinkedIn

Facebook and Twitter are the two most visible social networks, but there is a third that has gained significant traction – LinkedIn, the professional network. LinkedIn operates on a model of connecting with past and current colleagues, as well as connecting professionals in the same field. With over 100 million users in 200 countries, LinkedIn is the defacto professional social network.

LinkedIn has some immediately useful aspects to it. With an inbuilt recommendation system, LinkedIn immediately encourages its users to strengthen their resumes with strong recommendations from colleagues. Furthermore, in addition to professionals, companies too are able to have a presence on Linked and advertise/hunt for jobseekers.

Speaking from experience, hiring through LinkedIn has a much lower false positive rate compared to traditional recruiters. Intuitively, this makes sense. A headhunter is generally interested in pushing through as many candidates as possible to maximize revenue. The employer and prospective employee have the opposite interest – they are only interested in one candidate: each other. Hence, a prospective employee does the best job he/she can in bolstering their own resume on LinkedIn, and look for jobs. On the flip side, prospective employers have their recruiters trawl through LinkedIn looking for exceptional candidates. Recruiters from many companies such as Google (and ironically, Facebook) are known to contact great potential candidates on LinkedIn.

While LinkedIn implements a one-to-one social model, it shows some sophistication in connecting its users. A request from a user to connect to another user requires the requester to supply the email address of the requestee, if LinkedIn’s system indicates that the requester has been “spamming” for new connections. In addition, much like the real world, one can request a mutual third party to introduce two otherwise unconnected people.

LinkedIn recently went public (the first large successful social network IPO) with an opening price of USD45 and a closing price of USD122.70, ranking it as the fifth largest first-day post-bubble gainer.

Stranger Networking

An overlooked and under-appreciated social networking aspect is stranger networking. Stranger networking is familiar to all of us. Whenever we google for hotel reviews or search for a couch to crash on, stranger networking is at play. Stranger networking works on the basis that strangers on the Internet can reliably (within error bounds) provide useful content and recommendations and even a place to stay.

It should be noted that while social networking models require that some form of actual connection needs to take place (say by “Follow”-ing or “Friend”-ing), passive connections have been around for a very long time. RSS feeds are a passive form of “Follow” and reading blogs is generally a case of stranger networking (because we read more blogs of people we don’t know then we do of people we know). We have been stranger networking through passive connections for a very long time.

Stranger networking sites extend passive connections through an active friend or follow model. Well known stranger networking sites are TripAdvisorCouchsurfing and even Quora. I suspect stranger networking has interesting untapped social dynamics, and that future growth in the social networking area will have stranger networking at its core.

And finally, Google+

Google’s re-entry into the social arena aims to extend and cement Google’s sphere of influence over social. Its previous attempts has seen either limited adoption as in the case with Orkut, or has flopped altogether in the marketplace as in the case of Google Buzz. Its developer product, in the form of OpenSocial, too has not quite made a mark.

Google’s push into the area comes about as concerns about the dominance of Facebook and its closed insular network increases. Facebook has an estimated 700 million users across the world and has over 30 billion pieces of content pushed to it daily. That’s a large non-trivial number. Twitter, by comparison, has 200 million users who generate 350 million tweets a day. Again, a large non-trivial number.

The mindshare of Facebook and Twitter has been worrying other software behemoths. Google offered to buy out Twitter for USD$10billion in 2010/2011. Facebook itself offered to buy out Twitter for between USD$500 million to USD$2billion. Lots of other software companies, in turn, have offered to buy out Facebook – Friendster, Google, Viacom, MySpace, NBC, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Only Microsoft was successful with a purchase price of USD$250million in 2007 for 1.6% of Facebook which valued Facebook at USD$15billion.

By not being able to acquire companies in the social space or build sufficiently large social products,  Google was left out of the social space. A year ago, they embarked on an ambitious, bet-the-farm program to build a social networking product whose social model sits in between the friend model and the follow model. Vic Gundotra, who previously headed up Platform Evangelism at Microsoft and subsequently headed up social products in Google, pitched and was put in charge of the project along with Bradley Horowitz who oversees Google’s communication products and social applications. Their team built a working prototype in close to hundred days and showed it to management who responded with a standing ovation. A few months later, they invited all Google employees, Googlers, to try out the product, expecting perhaps a few hundred signing up. Instead, thousands of Googlers enthusiastically signed up and tried out the service. The response was generally encouraging but the feedback pushed the Google+ team towards further finetuning. After several months, they opened up Google+ to a field test whereby the public could test out the product. Needless to say, the public went wild with rave reviews of Google+ and the social network set a new record in user adoption rates.

Google+ offers all standard social networking features. It has a clean, simple interface. You can upload and share content – photos, status updates, links, videos and the like. You can text or video chat with friends (Google Talk). A killer feature is the ability to hangout through video with a group of people, ie group video conferencing in the browser. It works very well, even on Linux (yay!), and shows some sophistication in its implementation. With ten people video conferencing, I was seeing pretty consistent and reasonable bandwidth use. Hangout will be a killer feature for corporations, far more then it would be for groups of friends.  I also like the fact that Google+ allows me to download my data from the get-go. The service is not perfect, but the fact that Google has it there from day 1 is an encouraging sign.

The difference in Google+ is two-fold: firstly, it uses a follow model, and secondly you place people you follow into groups (circles) at the point you follow them. And that’s key. By making the following and circling process friction-less, users are more willing to categorize people they follow into groups.

Once that’s done, Google+ provides a sharing and viewing system that is centered around circles. Have a photo to share only to family? Easily done with Google+. Have an asynchronous code pattern to be shared only with JavaScript junkies? Google+ to the rescue. Not interested in seeing random updates from people you hardly know? Google+ lets you see updates from specific circles.

The early technorati have quickly jumped on the Google+ platform, with even high profile techies such as Linus Torvalds actively using Google+. In a short time, the non-technorati began to jump on the bandwagon. Politicians begun to use it. I now even see non-technical friends and family coming on to the Google+ bandwagon. Google has publicly stated that their userbase has grown beyond 10million and that users are sharing more then 1 billion items a day. Everett Rogers Technology Adoption Lifecycle above indicates that Google+ is probably in early majority phase.

Some have stated that Google+ is a Twitter killer. That view may have some merit. When I embarked on a mission to only use Google+ as my source of social networking and news, ditching Twitter and Reddit, I didn’t quite expect that I’d pretty much give up using Twitter. But I did. Google+ fulfilled my information needs in a fluid content rich interface and there was little reason to go back to the 140 limited world. My Twitter account now lies idle. I’m not the only one who is seeing this; others see Google+ as a more probable Twitter killer rather then a Facebook killer. At the moment, this looks unlikely. Twitter’s success lies in their API and the multitude of applications that have leveraged the API to provide a friction-less user experience. Google+ has not published their API yet, and the only mobile interface to Google+ is from Google itself. Once Google+ publishes their API, we should see real possibilities of Google+ replacing Twitter.

I think the real opportunities for Google+ is in the corporate sector. Currently, most corporations approach company-wide online content sharing and networking through intranet based systems such as Sharepoint, which is a fairly rigid and inflexible model. Google+ for businesses will be extremely helpful addition to the already excellent Google Apps suite of products. Shared company photos and videos, status updates, video conferencing and chatting, and most importantly, being able to jive with the psyche of the younger generation, will bring corporations into the 21st century.

It’s hard to determine how well Google+ would do in the social space over time. Social products depend on an extremely fickle audience – us. One misstep – be it a bad UI change, or data losses, or privacy related issues – and an opening exists for a competitor to sweep in. Friendster and MySpace are clear evidence of that. In its relatively short history, Google+ has already been embroiled in a minor controversy. The requirement Google+ puts on its members to use real names and to disclose gender information has been a sticking point for a number of its users, with some claiming a loss of privacy. Generally, however, Google+ has steered clear of the major stumbling blocks. They certainly have the technical knowhow and cultural sophistication to avoid the common problems that plague other new services and are capable to keep growing Google+ with minimal hiccups. Given that in the space this essay was written, Google+ added another 10 million users to a total of 20-25 million users, I would expect Google+ to easily break the 100million user figure by end-year. Once that happens, the viral positive-feedback nature of social networks will kick in and we should see an exponential increase in its userbase.

With Google revamping and streamlining its entire product line, we will see them use their indomitable presence on the Internet to funnel users towards Google+, and perhaps even away from the competition. From the company’s perspective, this makes sense. The more users share on Google+, the more able Google is in furthering its goal of indexing all the information in the world, and thus, better positioned to sell advertising and maximize its revenues.

This thought, delightful as it may be to Google’s shareholders, should be worrying for the rest of us. Google already has a de-facto monopoly on large swaths of Internet real-estate from Gmail to Youtube to its iconic search facility. Extending the monopoly to social networks would provide Google with tremendous, perhaps even overarching, power. Given that underlying values of powerful entities have a nasty tendency of getting corrupted over time, the thought of a single entity responsible for so much of our online activity is terrifying. In an ideal world, we shouldn’t look towards Google+ in replacing Facebook. Rather, we should hope for Google and Facebook and Twitter to be in an intense battle to retain and increase their userbase by striving to fulfill our needs and demands. In true capitalist fashion, market competition will be driving force in keeping these companies on their toes and focused on our needs.

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4 Responses to Google Plus Gets a +1

  1. Jay Krish says:

    Awesome, well-researched post. Saw it on Malaysian Insider and thought I’d give you a personal thumbs-up. Cheers!

  2. ditesh says:

    Thanks Jay! Glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. Manimohan says:

    Excellent piece of balanced analysis. I have been extremely wary of using facebook exactly because of the totally open nature of the network that does not allow discrimination in what you share with whom. Google+ seems to address this very well. The point about the power this may give Google if it is really widely adopted is certainly a valid one and bears keeping in mind. All things considered, it still seems a great option and time will tell how it goes.
    Anyway, wonderful piece of work Ditesh !

  4. wahlau says:

    is this your new job? :) well written and i tend to agree with your views on how Google took on this SN thingy…

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