Wednesday, February 29, 2012

There Can Be Only One

Every couple of weeks I hear about or come across another technology article which seems to want to tell me, once and for all, that Google+ is dead, dying or destined for the scrapheap. When it comes down to it, all of these articles have basically said the same thing - unless Google+ becomes the next Facebook sometime before you finish reading this sentence, it won't amount to anything.

Part of this is, to be certain, connected to the fact that it's Google. Plaxo was able to muddle along for years in the social networking space without technology writers feeling the constant need to tell us that it wasn't going to work out. Granted, Plaxo eventually exited social networking, but they gave it a go for nearly a decade. One suspects they wouldn't have made it that far if, less than a year after it launched, there had been a continual litany of press proclaiming it dead. But there is an expectation that Google has a combination of the Midas Touch and bottomless pockets, and that combined, these two things would obviate the need to spend any reasonable amount of time catching up or settling into a niche. Remember, we're talking about a service that has existed for less than a year now.

I don't understand the sense of urgency for Google+ to be a world-beating social network. Right now, in the technology press, the word "wasteland" has become a common descriptor for Google+. I'm told that no-one spends their time there. Let's say for a moment that I buy into that (even if my Stream doesn't). I just have one question. So? Why does everyone in the world, or even in my neighborhood, need to be on Google+? I have found my way into a multinational community here, and it works for me, despite the fact that it doesn't number in the tens of thousands.

But I suspect that I'm not really using Google+ in the way that Facebook (or possibly Google+, for that matter) is intended to be used. The common model of "friends and photographs" doesn't interest me. I don't care to see pictures of my old high-school or college classmates drunkenly dancing on tables (especially now that we're in our forties), and I don't use social networking for keeping up with what's going on in the lives of the people I know. The idea of having my mother check my Google+ stream to find out what I'm up to seems bizarre. (I prefer the telephone or having a meal with someone - but I'm old-school like that.) My own experience with Google+ is that it's like a more interactive version of my weblog. (Yep. I actually use the entire word - I'm old-school like that, too.)

So, my question becomes this: What about Facebook is so compelling that no-one should want to use any service that doesn't match it feature-for-feature? After all, Facebook, like Google+, is "free." Which we now understand to mean that the people who use the sites aren't the customers - they're volunteer content providers. That content is their personal information and that information is constantly being sold to the actual customers, who are the advertisers that seek to buy access to the users. A social networking site would want to know if I were moving, not because they're invested in making sure my friends don't lose track of me, but because there are moving companies who will pay to have the site shove an advertisement onto the center of my screen (and if they could, call me on the phone and put a flyer under my front door). By the same token, from Facebook's or Google's point of view, it's more important that Babies'R'Us find out that a friend might be expecting than it is for me to find out, given their business model. Because let's face it, both Google and Facebook are really in the same business - helping advertisers undermine your financial self-control by finding the right buttons to push to open your wallet. True, if seems that advertisers know a user's every move, but their friends never seem to get the memo, then people will start to drift away. But people can be remarkably patient.

So why, again, must every social networking site be Facebook, or enough like it that you can't tell the difference? Maybe Google+ won't succeed in sufficiently monetizing the many conversations that occur on the site to be considered worthwhile, and it will go the way of some of Google's other forays into social networking. (Although if they'd rather give away instead, I call dibs.) That would be a shame, but it's okay. Perhaps, and this is what I'm rooting for, Google+ will evolve into something of its own. Let Facebook be for friends and photographs and LinkedIn be for business and professionals. That leaves a lot of room for other things. It's easy to dismiss the places where people don't already live as "wasteland" or to view the low-hanging fruit as the only ones worth eating. But if there is anything that we should have learned from the World Wide Web, it's that there's a lot of space to play in out there. There's no need to herd everyone into the same playground.

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