Google+: another beautiful tool for geeks that may well fail to become mainstream

Google+ makes Facebook look like MySpace. And that’s bad news for them. Altavista, Yahoo, MySpace and all the other long forgotten online giants have shown one thing: Size and reach online are very volatile. It is so easy to switch brands online that the biggest brands can collapse within a couple of years. You need to stay on the ball. How?

(Oliver Reichenstein, Why and how Google+’s interface is kicking ass)

Over the weekend, I’ve finally got round to setting up a Google+ profile and I thought I’d share a few random initial thoughts about the service.

The best news? Google has belatedly hired a designer

Perhaps the most striking thing about Google+ is its design: while so far I and, I suspect, most other people had always equated Google with poor or ugly web design, they’ve recently clearly embarked on a major effort to smarten up the appearance of all their pages: this has encompassed not just much nicer-looking design, but also a cross-platform rebranding exercise involving, among other moves, dropping the Picasa name in favour of Google Photos, in the hope of inciting people to use it more.

Bad design, more than anything else, is what killed off Myspace and, conversely, a clean, elegant, user-friendly interface will immediately attract the better type of user and give a new site the right initial traction: while not sufficient to guarantee success for Google+, the fact that they’ve very belatedly ticked this box means they have a chance of becoming a credible player in the social field—at least for those who are repelled by bad design.

Mark Zuckerberg is not Rupert Murdoch

Whether Google+ will ever be a mainstream player in social, however, remains very much in the balance. Facebook established itself in its present monopoly position because of Myspace’s incompetence: people wouldn’t have migrated massively to Facebook in 2007-2009 (or joined it en masse for players altogether new to a social network) if there had been other credible players in the field then. For obvious reasons, social networking is a field in which one platform’s dominance has clear benefits for users that possibly outweigh the drawbacks that any monopoly always brings with it: if all your friends and acquaintances are on Facebook, you’ll join Facebook.

Creating sufficient traction to reverse such dominance—unless the dominant player makes a colossal mistake—is always going to be a tall order: and since Mark Zuckerberg is not Rupert Murdoch, that’s unlikely to happen despite the number of people who would like it to. Not everyone is blessed by a competitor whose ability to waste vast amounts of money is matched only by his utter ineptitude and lack of understanding of his chosen market segment.

Remember Friendfeed?

Google+, ironically, reminds me of nothing more than of Friendfeed, a service that everyone had written glowing reviews about in 2007, when it was launched. Friendfeed was everything that Google+ seeks to be, and more: it was well-designed, conceived from the bottom up to encourage and facilitate conversations—and yet, it never took off and was eventually taken over by Facebook, which effectively mothballed the service [i]

Friendfeed was enthusiastically taken up by geeks who recognised its quality—but it never broke into the mainstream. Of course the crucial difference between Friendfeed and Google+ is that the latter is backed by the almost boundless resources of Google: but it is nonetheless symptomatic that the discussion about Google+ has essentially taken place between geeks and that coverage in the mainstream press has been minimal since launch. This may change, but if the initial trend deepens, it spells trouble for Google: Google+ is showing clear signs of going in the direction of a niche for geeks, such as Kevin Rose, who actually redirected his blog to his Google+ page. While this shows how little value Mr Rose places on his domain name and all the posts he wrote in his blog previously, it also reveals the main issue currently facing Google with its new project: how to make it break into the mainstream.

Google+ was designed from the ground up to replace both Facebook (symmetrical relationships) and Twitter (asymmetrical relationships): it allows you to stratify your contacts in a powerful yet incredibly simple way

Google+’s greatest strength is that it tries—successfully—to be consensual in the war of symmetrical vs. asymmetrical social networks. As Mr Reichenstein points out:

Facebook is flawed deep down in its universitarian symmetric friendship and groups concept (this is why it works so good for collecting old schoolfriends that you don’t want to be in touch with anymore).

(Oliver Reichenstein, Why and how Google+’s interface is kicking ass, ibid.)

He’s right, of course, but the ‘flawed’ Facebook concept of symmetric friendship and of resolutely mainstream features (including the Skype integration about which he vociferously complains) is precisely what appeals to the hoi polloi, because sophistication and geekery repels them and ‘mainstream’ features are exactly what they need.

The balance struck by Google+ between symmetrical and asymmetrical relationship is, in my opinion, its strongest feature apart from the successful design: its Circles work perfectly to allow one to create both symmetrical (à la Facebook) and asymmetrical (à la Twitter) groups of connections. And you can refine the categorisation of your contacts as much or as little as you like. This is done in a clearly-understandable, easy-to-customise way that puts Facebook (where editing one’s friend lists is absurdly complicated) to shame.

Does Google+ aggravate the ‘Scoble Problem’ in social networks?

Yet some of the hopes that Google is placing in its new service are probably misplaced. In Google+, the emphasis is not just on fine-tuned stratification; it’s also on generating conversation—and this may be expecting too much of the average user.

Ben Brooks explains this rather well:

That seems to be the main problem that I have with Google+, I don’t like being forced — or feeling obligated — into responding to people. It gets me into trouble many places (Twitter, Email, voice mails), but at the end of the day I don’t have the time, care, or concern to give a proper response to everyone that pings me — it’s not something I say with pride and unfortunately is a ‘humble brag’, but I don’t know how else to explain it.

I think he has a point here: one reason why commenters like Robert Scoble or Kevin Rose, who adore receiving—and responding to—comments about whatever they post on social networks have taken up Google+ with the same naive enthusiasm that they and the likes of them take up any novelties in tech reflects the fact that its interface is built around conversation and thus engagement—possibly at the expense of depth in the underlying argument, but that’s besides the point.

Yet much in the same way that I don’t write blog posts primarily to attract comments [ii], so I like my web presence to be essentially one-directional: primarily a statement of where I stand on issues, rather than an invitation to discussion—which, to be frank, doesn’t always live up to the hopes placed in it.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, the Robert Scobles of this world are relatively scarce. Too scarce for Google+ to gain meaningful traction just as a vehicle for their compulsive need for self-aggrandisement.

Some questions remain unanswered and Google will have to address them: They include how is Google Buzz supposed to fit in and whether Google+ is an ‘open’ network

Google’s widely-acknowledged failure with Google Buzz, which launched in early 2010 and almost immediately descended into oblivion, ought to bring at least one question back to surface now that Google has chosen to resurrect Buzz as an integral part of users’ Google+ interface. How is the Buzz feed supposed to interact with one’s Google+ posts? At the time, I’d pointed out that:

Google Buzz has one thing going for it: in contrast to Twitter and Facebook, it actually does make it easy to “generate your own buzz” by asking you to simply add services to your pre-existing Google profile […]. Facebook, on the other hand […] has been making it increasingly difficult for users to share their web content, because Facebook’s ambition—and, in my view, a strategically mistaken one—is to turn itself into a closed shop, forcing its users to keep their photographs on Facebook rather than Flickr, despite the fact that Facebook’s photo utility, for serious photographers, is ridiculously mediocre in comparison to Flickr, and discouraging them from any interaction between their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Yet how Buzz and Google+ are meant to interact is unclear: you were originally able to post original entries to Buzz—although, after the service failed to gain traction, no one continued doing so, and those people who continue using Buzz did so residually, as it were, by aggregating their existing web presence in it; that is what I still do on my Buzz feed. Now Google offers us a separate vehicle, Google+, which we’re expected to populate with content, in addition to Buzz, Google Photos, Google videos and our existing streams in Facebook, Twitter and others. The resulting range of possibilities is tantalisingly wide—but the direction in which it’s meant to be taking Google’s users is unclear.

The point about Flickr, especially, is a revealing one, and one-and-a-half years later, it’s still relevant: the Picasa rebranding as Google Photos and the latter’s inclusion within the Google+ interface shows Google wants all its existing products (Buzz, Google and Youtube) to marry within each user’s profile. And the fact that it’s even more difficult to get one’s existing web presence on other platforms (Flickr in particular, but also Twitter, videos and blog posts) to display prominently within Google+ means the latter isn’t really ‘open’—and, implicitly, that like Facebook before it, it aims squarely at becoming a monopoly, encompassing as much as possible of and, ideally, all its users’ online activity.

Google+ probably arrives to late to gain the traction needed to displace existing social networks

I don’t for a moment believe that this is going to work as advertised. Google+ would have to prove immensely popular to justify users switching to the extent required by the the sudden availability of all these new communications channels for them to gain enough traction to emerge as the dominant social network. Users who already engage in a social network are probably content with what Facebook, Twitter and others, despite their faults, have to offer and are unlikely to switch. Those whose interest hasn’t been aroused so far are unlikely to change their minds just on the strength of Google+’s genuinely beautiful and well-designed interface.

To those—geeks, primarily—justifiably discontented with the imperfections of existing social networks, Google+ has much to offer: they will be seduced by the combination of very sound design and the ability easily to segment their connections as finely as desired. To the vast majority of people, however, Google+ won’t change their lives sufficiently to the extent of displacing other social networks and becoming the dominant player.

  1. I still use Friendfeed’s superb RSS as a lifestream of everything I post online, and this is used by those who want to follow all my activity.
  2. Although comments will always be available for those who want them.