Plus(es) and Minus(es)

Google is a huge, successful, powerful and influential company – but Google has a problem. The problem is that the only place where Google really makes money is Search. Sure, YouTube makes some money, Gmail breaks even, some of the business-oriented stuff like Google Docs does OK, but the real cash cow in the House of Google is the ads you see when you do a web search.

Why is that a problem? Because some nuclear genius whiz kid could come up with a better way of searching the web tomorrow, sell it to one of Google’s competitors, we’d all switch to using the new gizmo, and the Empire goes down the drain faster than you can say “Use the force, Luke.” So it only makes sense that Google has hired a bunch of nuclear genius whiz kids of their own, and they spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about what’s going to be the Next Big Thing in search engines.

Right now, all the whiz kids are convinced that the Next Big Thing is going to be what Mark Zuckerberg (the Facebook dude) calls “The Social Graph.”

When you strip all the Zuck-derived bullshit off of that term, what it means is that when you do a Google search, the results you get would be more relevant and interesting to you if they were influenced by things your friends found relevant and interesting. The general idea is that when you search, you’re probably looking for the same kinds of things your friends were looking for.

So everybody’s goal right now is to come up with a way of indexing your search results with the people on your Friend list, so things will float to the top that they found useful.

Yeah, I know. Horrifying, isn’t it?

If that doesn’t horrify you, then go back and read those two paragraphs again. Then go to Facebook and scroll through the people on your Friends list. Then think about it for a moment. Your search results are going to be influenced by what those people found useful?

This is clearly the dumbest idea ever, but they’re all deadly serious about it.

In a perfect world, Google would get access to all that juicy data that Facebook keeps on you, your likes and dislikes, and your friends. They could come up with some clever way to massage that into their search algorithm, and that would be that. The problem is that Facebook won’t let them have the data. Why not? Partially because Facebook wants to milk that data for revenue themselves – but the main reason is that Facebook is partially owned by Microsoft (didn’t know that, did ya?) and Microsoft would really, genuinely and truly like it if Google died in a fire.

Which means that if Google wants access to a social network, they’re going to have to build one themselves.

That’s where Google+ comes from.
(Pronounced “Google Plus”, or “G-Plus”, or just “Plus”.)

I’ve been playing around with G+ for about a month now, I guess. It’s interesting, in the sense that Google is trying to create something that is both like Facebook and better than Facebook. They may have succeeded with that, but I don’t know if it will make a difference. Facebook simply has such a huge lead at this point that in order to be a real competitor, G+ is going to have to do something dramatic. A killer app. Something that changes the social game in a powerful way. Some feature that will make people say “Wow. I need to check that out.” I’m simply not seeing that feature yet.

But don’t get me wrong – even at this early stage there are some improvements, the biggest of which is probably Circles.

On Facebook, if someone is on your Friends list then they see everything you post, and that’s that. On G+, you don’t have a Friends List, you have Circles. When you add someone, you put them in a Circle (or multiple Circles) and that determines what they will see. For example, you’ve got one Circle for your Friends, and another Circle for Family, and a third Circle for Co-workers. When you post, you can decide which Circle will see what you just said.

That seems like a pretty cool idea, doesn’t it? I’m sure we’ve all had that experience where our boss showed up on Facebook and sent us a friend request, and it puts you in a weird position. If you called in sick today, and your boss can see you posting pictures from poolside, that would probably be A Bad Thing. With the Circles on G+, you can put your boss in one Circle, and post your poolside pics to a different Circle, and you’re good to go. I can definitely see where this would come in handy for college students. You could post your “Dude, I’m SO high right now!” messages without worrying about your Mom seeing it.

So I can see the potential behind Circles on G+, but the truth is I haven’t found it to be nearly as useful as it sounds. You may remember that back in February I wrote an article called The Facebook Guide, and Rule #2 was “Never put anything on your Facebook profile that you wouldn’t be willing to have printed in a newspaper, so anyone could see it.” Years of Facebooking has taught me not to post anything unless I’m comfortable with everybody reading it. The whole Circles concept sounds cool, but everytime I post something I end up posting it to all my Circles, and if you’re going to do that, then what’s the point in having people divided up into all these little groups?

Besides, if the whole Circles idea is something that really appeals to you, then you can do something similar with Facebook now. On Facebook it’s called Lists, and they’re a pain in the ass to organize, but with a little work you can, at least in theory, accomplish the same thing.

To tell you the truth, if G+ has any advantage at all, it may simply be the fact that Facebook feels so slimy. Everybody uses it, but nobody likes it, because the whole experience leaves you with the impression that it’s run by shitheads. Applications that trick you into allowing them to access your data. Viruses that spread and spread and are never stopped. A barrage of messages from games you don’t want to play. But for me the advertisements are probably the worst part. I’m a man, and I listed kayaking, photography, and fishing among my interests, so you know what I see when I log onto Facebook? I see tits. Ads with tits in a kayak, tits with a camera, tits with a fishing pole.

The biggest problem with G+ is that it was developed by nerds – but in my opinion that’s a problem with every product Google rolls out. This is, after all, the same company that routinely sends me breathless, excited announcements about new hotkey combinations they’ve developed. In the history of computing, no one but the most extreme nerds have ever given a shit about hotkeys. People who work with computers for any other reason than just screwing around with computers, want a big button they can click with a mouse or stab with a finger. Telling them you can only do something with some obscure hotkey combination is the same as telling them it’s impossible.

It’s not that a G+ account is difficult to set up. It’s actually pretty easy, even if you can’t tell what the fuck it’s doing most of the time. It just doesn’t walk you through everything, and explain everything along the way like Facebook does. The Grandma demographic is a huge (and underappreciated) part of Facebook’s success. It’s why most people will stay on Facebook even when it’s slimy and run by shitheads, and G+ is never gonna catch Grandma’s interest without significant changes.

So does that mean that G+ is a failure? I don’t think so. People seem to think it has to replace Facebook for it to be a success, but I don’t believe that. Our online social life can (and should) be about more than just keeping track of people we already know.

The smartest thing I’ve heard said about G+ so far is Guy Kawasaki‘s description that “Facebook is for people. Google+ is for passions.” If you want to find a group of people with similar interests, similar hobbies, or a similar outlook; and get engaged in some fascinating, in-depth conversations, then Google+ is an amazing vehicle for that. If you want to see if Aunt Mildred’s goiter is still tormenting her, then Facebook is where it’s at.

- Ken

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4 comments to Plus(es) and Minus(es)

  • I had to read the article again. I got distracted and thought that Google+ was the new name for tits.

    My take is about the same for what it’s worth. I’m starting to find more and more of this social stuff slimy in the way you described. I’m getting more joy from just posting and reading about stuff I enjoy than keeping up with people anyhow.

    I don’t think Facebook is going anywhere for a while, but considering what’s happened with Buzz and Google+, Google would be better off to focus on innovation rather than competition in the Social areas.

  • davy jones

    If both destroy one another we could always return to myspace. Isn’t that like the planet Hoth of social networking?

  • I really thought G+ was going to give Facebook a run for its money. When it opened up to the world, I thought people would migrate over in droves. Didn’t happen. I will say I’ve picked up a few interesting people that I otherwise wouldn’t have, so it’s not been a total loss as far as I’m concerned.

    They didn’t exactly knock it out of the park either. But the game isn’t over yet. Google employee Steve Yegge has this to say (reposted by Rip Rowan):

    Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work. So Facebook is different for everyone. Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there’s something there for everyone.

    Looks like at least somebody at the big G gets it. Proper implementation, of course, is a different matter… and may take some time.

  • Roy Hendrix

    Insightful and thought-provoking discussion, as usual. The language is a little saltier than usual, but nothing more than one hears in any public place (except most churches)these days.

    Two things that I hope Google addresses that Facebook ignores is the posting of viruses that pose as valid applications and appear to be supported by Facebook, and the abject failure of Facebook to provide an easily accessed mechanism to report applications as viruses and have them removed.