Google Plus : Getting close to the sweet spot by getting the basics right

Sun 10 July 2011

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My first reaction to google plus was Nice. But facebook has a lockin on the friends and people will not shift until their friends shift which will pretty much mean most will play around with google and then go back to facebook since thats where their friends are.

As I played with it a little more, I realised the Circles were a little confusing. It took me a while to realise who exactly got to see my posts when I posted them to my extended circle. While they allowed you a more natural way to constrain publishing to a private subgroup of your network, their organisation wasn't exactly simple or natural (though I'm sure Google worked very hard even to get circle management to its current shape). Despite its bold move on circles that has been well received. I think circles will need to be better managed. It will perhaps take some time for the feedback from the community to find its way back into superior circle management.

So while I was willing to give it more credit than google wave, it didn't quite blow me off my feet. And I imagined facebook to continue to be the unchallenged king of social networking.

As I used it over the week, I felt my perceptions changing. Not in a manner that I could feel the change strongly, but slowly and quietly. And then it struck me. The gauntlet had indeed been thrown quite credibly. And the king is now being challenged.

Here's why. At a very fundamental level, google is changing the game. And it is not wanting to be the king of the social networks as understood today. It wants to be the be king of social networks that will be.

The Public / Private Asymmetric Network :

Facebook is a private network. Sure you can make your facebook status update completely visible for everyone to see, but thats really an atypical usecase. Facebook allows me to bring online the friends I made in the past. Friends I now therefore trust. Friends I can make remarks to that I wouldn't want to make publicly. And barring a few exceptions (eg. when someone ranted about their job only to find their boss reading the rant), the model held. Privacy is important, critical and assumed. Any real or perceived violations of privacy are met with an uproar. What facebook does not allow me to do (at least based on the easily understood controls available to me) is create further subgroups within my network (it actually does that - but I rarely find myself using these features and doubt if many others use them). It takes my "offline photosharing" and makes it "online". It takes my "offline gossip" and makes it "online". Facebook "takes my offline network" and "makes it online".

Twitter on the other hand is a public network. There should be a tagline which says "Everything you say, can and do will be used against you in a court of law, in your classroom, in your job, in your sports team and even within your friends and family". But its not really required, and no one misses it, since most Twitter users very quickly understand it. With twitter, I can eavesdrop on conversations between two other twitter users, and neither of them are likely to object nor am I likely to feel guilty - since that is consistent with the conventional protocol. Twitter is a public network. It is perfectly normal for strangers to start engaging in a conversation. It therefore has this end result called "serendipitous discovery" of both information and relationships. Most of the people I interact with on twitter are people I met online. And later on I feel nice when I end up meeting them in real life. Twitter is all about "discovering an online network" and then when feasible "bringing part of the online network offline".

Twitter is also an asymmetric network. While facebook carries friendships online, twitter enabled followings in an asymmetric fashion. Which allows me to fine tune the messages that I choose to listen to. Thus I am no longer required to read the status updates of those who wish to read mine. (Facebook allows this too via hiding- but again thats probably not a very typical behaviour). Offline conversations are constrained by space and time - the people who are conversing need to be at the same place at the same time. Thus they are often necessarily symmetrical (An example where that is not true is when a charismatic leader is say addressing a large crowd - the leader hardly knows each person in the crowd, though they all know him a lot better). Online networking removes the constraints of space and time. Thus asymmetric relationships are much easier to support.

While most understood facebook very quickly, for a lot of people the response to Twitter is "I don't get it". And part of the reason is that twitter does not convert an offline network to online network, but is really pushing at the boundaries of what an online network can be. While I value the privacy of my data on facebook, I actually value the serendipitous discovery and the astonishing learning I can benefit from with twitter so much more, because it has enabled communication and network patterns that were not earlier feasible in offline networks given constraints of space and time. And while the 140 character magic holds, it does become painful when tracking long and convoluted conversations.

Google Plus groks this. It has smartly enabled the capabilities and features of a public and private network. While you can push your posts on the public channel and eavesdrop and participate on conversations others are holding on the public channel, it simultaneously affords you the choice to constrain your messages to the specific group of people that you would choose to constrain them to. It also has the most rudimentary capabilities to start building an interest graph. And it is asymmetric which helps each person maximise the value he gets from the network. Moreover it has features to allow me to implement the appropriate communication patterns with people that I share my childhood photographs with, with those I work with, and those that inspire me. It has simultaneously enabled private gossipy conversation, listening into the people I respect (not befriend), and serendipitous discovery.

Ka Ching!

The unified consolidated channel

Once upon a time, I had a watch, a camera, a phone, an alarm clock, a map, a hi-fi audio system, a radio, a TV / DVD player to play my DVDs. Now I have a smart-phone. And while the really keen will continue to own each or some of the individual components, it is neither a surprise nor a secret, that my smartphone is ever encroaching into their territories. We want these together, and we want them to be easy to carry.

While online services are inherently portable and thus the physical form factor of having to carry them around is not applicable, the integration of various service is an important factor. Google Plus is but one element of a broader channel. Incoming notifications on google plus show up in a small red box at the top right corner of my gmail tab. Now imagine gmail, google docs, google plus, picasa, youtube, google maps, google music, google latitude, google storage all getting (social / interest) network enabled. And imagine them being available in google apps also. And imagine them simultaneously available on desktops, netbooks, notebooks, tablets and mobile phones. Google already has most of these pieces - what it lacked is that these were not "network friendly". Imagine each of these assets becoming network friendly - I can publish google docs to a specific circle I had defined on google plus. It has been suggested that the google plus we see today is but an early stage view of what is likely to be a continuous rollout of features over a year. Whether you look at facebook, linkedin, slideshare, foursquare, skype, or quora - they are the watch makers, camera makers, radio makers. Google is building the online smartphone. And that will probably be the important advantage google will have to offset facebook's entrenched user base. That will cause many of your friends on Facebook to also start using Google Plus. Google Plus is google's one ring to bind them all.

Openness :

Facebook did a phenomenal job in opening up its screen real estate to a number of other applications through its platform API. However it has also attempted to lock-in the users by licensing constraints. (eg. Robert Scoble getting his facebook account disabled). On the other hand google has made a public commitment to keep its data under the users's control all the time including being able to move it out. As we start utilising the graphs we build across many more applications, and especially the more serious ones than the FarmVilles at Facebook, data openness will continue to become more critical. Unless others play catch up with google, in terms of its commitment to open data - this will start becoming an increasingly stronger factor in google's favour.

In summary

Google plus is credible execution to fill an important gap in google's earlier offerings. However it goes well and beyond just private social networking. It is really building public / private, asymmetric networking built using social graphs based on friendships, work relationships, online discoveries and probably soon enough interest graphs as well. It is building the network that will be. While google wants to own the experience, it is liberal enough to publicly commit that the data is owned by the user. Combined with the awesome google portfolio and its evergrowing warchest built out of search advertising revenues - This is the network to beat.

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