01 March 2012

Social networks vs. real-life

At launch, the catch phrase for ’s social network/layer was Real-life sharing, rethought for the web. But then came the spammers, the controversies around requiring the real-name from users and the constant pushing into every aspect of Google, regardless of this created a better experience or functionality. My personal impression was largely influenced by the decision to strip of it’s sharing functions in favor of Google+. At some point I started thinking how Google+ compares with other more successful social networks and here is what I came up with:

was built around simplicity from the start: you only have the choice between public or protected tweets; the majority of users are sharing public nonetheless. The reason, the way I see it, is that Twitter imposes very little restrictions on your profile, it requires very little identifiable information from the users to setup accounts and, should you be uncomfortable sharing something under your current identity, you can easily create another account, no questions asked. You can even use the network for consumption-only, without logging in, a use case that got encouraged lately. There are of course some exceptions – verified accounts are (mostly) who they say they are – but usually you can create a completely new You on Twitter. This amount of personal freedom has enabled it to grow and transform itself in a discovery network, a new communication medium for revolutionaries and a news source along traditional media. In a sense, Twitter mirrors some aspects of real-life better than the competition: on Twitter you can bump-in to new people, answer their queries and then move along – or become closer, if you choose. There is little friction in the form of privacy concerns in these new encounters, because, like in real-life, you only get to see (and give from yourself) a very small portion of the other person’s identity: their avatar (face), their handle (maybe the first name in a face-to-face conversation) and a couple of previous tweets (what they talk to other people when you meet). Twitter is fully about the Here and Now, it embodies our fluent personality and emotions, ever-shifting in contact with others. In this sense you could think of it’s ineffective search almost as a feature, enabling the world to forget about your past and focus entirely on the present.

has gone the opposite route in capturing users’ attention. It started as a private network, a select club of individuals, isolated from the wider web; but in return it required honesty and a growing number or personal information: your real name, your real relationships. And it’s not only what the sign-up process explicitly requests; implicitly, to use the social network at it’s fullest – to get in touch with real-life connections – people expect you to share some degree of personal information. This encouraged users to share much more intimately, by creating a sense of security and trust. Of course, Facebook didn’t stop at this, constantly pushing the boundary between private and public and trying to get a foothold in Twitter’s territory. And lately, by introducing Timeline it positions itself again opposite to Twitter, wanting to capture and share your entire life, from the smallest every-day gestures to the big, life-changing events. This moves to further strengthen the connection between your offline identity and your Facebook persona, but can potentially cause frictions, as people change throughout life and try to shed past experiences.

How does Google+ relate to these two existing solutions? The way I see it, Google is trying to have it both ways at once: public activity à la Twitter (public +1’s, profile visible in searches, hashtags and ‘What’s hot’) and a strong online profile that can be traced back to your offline self à la Facebook (requirement for ‘real-name’, connection with all other Google services through the new privacy policy). And that’s one of the problems: most people are not comfortable with sharing publicly as long as this can be easily traced back to them. Facebook has managed to pull it off to some extent after a much longer online presence by constantly changing the rules and testing these boundaries and pulling back if the outcry was too big.

The use of asynchronous relationships in circles is only adding to the problem: it’s a great way to filter the content for consumption, but sharing to circles is broken; unless the people you circle add you back, they won’t see posts directed to that circle. That’s not how real-life works; there you expect people to listen while you talk to them. In other words the relationships need to become synchronous – just like on Facebook! In that case, why not use Facebook in the first place? – since it already copied circles in the forms of lists and even went a little further. As a social network Google+ doesn’t fill any need for a casual user; as a social layer for search it won’t be useful until it has enough mass; a vicious circle Google will have a tough time breaking.

The new privacy policy introduced today could bring more ambiguity in the nascent Google social network. I don’t expect much of a change for my single account, despite all the alarmist reports; Google always collected the information, now it’s only trying to put it together, again behind your supposedly unique Google identity. But what happens for people with multiple Google – and Plus – accounts? How does this work together with the ‘real-name’ policy? Are we supposed to have different accounts under the same name – or should we start using fake, but real-sounding names? And what is the benefit of unification for these users when they clearly don’t have unified accounts and so won’t get a tighter integration? The problems with multiple accounts go back to the beginning of the network and were amplified by the introduction of Plus to Google Apps, but without any means of merging these two identities, setting the default one or migrating data between the two. Users have been waiting for these tools for some time and are starting to become anxious.

I think we’ll see that this approach still won’t work. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter work because they evolved based on how users were naturally using them. Google+ is trying to make the users evolve to fit into the network they created. It’s unnatural. MG Siegler

A perfect example of naturally growing network would be Pinterest; even before I started noticing more and more articles online I heard about Pinterest from a colleague at work who absolutely loves it. Since then it started showing up in my Twitter stream and Facebook feed; the Romanian blogosphere also speaks positively about it. That never happened with Google+ and for that matter neither with Twitter. The single social network I heard about from friends before reading about it on the web was Facebook years and years ago…

Pinterest for Marketers
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1 comment:

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