Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Google+ vs. Facebook

Google opened membership in Google+  to the general public this week (Monday 20 September 2011) with its Web pages firing provocative shots across Facebook's bow:
  • "Google+ makes connecting on the web more like connecting in the real world. Share your thoughts, links and photos with the right circles."
  • "You share different things with different people. But sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn’t be a hassle. Circles make it easy to put your friends from Saturday night in one circle, your parents in another, and your boss in a circle by himself, just like real life."         
In other words, Google is positioning Google+ ... a/k/a "GPlus" and "G+" ... as a Facebook killer. In my opinion, this is a marketing blunder because it presumes that a substantial portion of Facebook's 800 million users want their social network platform to create accurate cyberspace models of their real-life social networks. 

I'll grant that most Facebook members might welcome a few more categories beyond friends, friends of friends, and everyone on the Internet. Indeed, Facebook recently introduced a new category called "close friends". However I doubt that most Facebook users want to carefully calibrate their social relationships, upgrading some from time to time, downgrading others. This makes me suspect that the designers of G+ confused the broad sociological concept of "social networks" that embraces all human relationships with the colloquial denotation of "social networks" that refers to social life after working hours. 

Yes, G+ really does enable its users to easily construct far more accurate models of their social relationships than Facebook:
  • G+ allows users to create as many social circles as they want, assign whatever names they want, and create circles that overlap. In other words, a G+ user can put a contact into more than one circle.
  • And because users can provide any names to their circles, G+ permits users to define mixed and negative categories, such as "adversary" "competitor" "enemy" "frenemy" and "mortal enemy"
  • But best of all, a user's social models on G+ are as private as the models they carry in their heads because the names of a user's circles and the members of those circles are secrets that remain hidden from the other users of G+ ... Contrast this to Facebook's requirement that "friends" must mutually friend each other and that a user's list of friends can be seen by other Facebook members.
While I can't imagine that most Facebook users would want to create such refined categories of positive and negative relationships for their after hours social lives, I am equally certain that most white collar professionals will relish the availability of a well-designed free tool that could help them manage the complex, overlapping relationships in their workplace. 

In the workplace we see each other as members of overlapping teams, as providers of the particular skills and resources we need for our projects, as competitors for advancement, as frenemies, as dangerous enemies, etc, etc, etc. And we are forced to recalibrate our working relationships from time to time. So-called "office friendships" are more like diplomatic alliances -- maintained for only so long as they are useful. In the workplace we have to be careful about what we say, to whom, and when we say it. All of which brings me to the following insight:
  • G+ is for 9 to 5 
  • Facebook is for evenings and weekends
In other words, G+ can advance our careers; whereas Facebook can enhance our social lives. G+ is for success; Facebook is for fun. The G+ circles will help us channel our messages to the precise recipients we need to reach; whereas Facebook allows us to interact with people we didn't even know existed (friends of friends ... and their friends) until they added a comment to one of our posts. To be sure, we should expect G+ and Facebook to copy each other's features from time to time. But these platforms serve fundamentally different purposes and require fundamentally different expectations from their users. Nevertheless, the same people could use both.

I close with a few caveats and predictions: 
  • As Internet applications go, Facebook has been around for a long time -- so its underlying code is relatively mature, i.e, it's debugged, easy to learn, and easy to use. By contrast, G+ just popped out of beta testing (with 20 million beta testers); so it may still contain glitches that early users might find discouraging enough to walk away after giving it a few tries.
  • And there's always the possibility that a competitor for managing social relationships in the workplace will roar out of nowhere with a more appealing platform.  However, I think G+ has some built in advantages that will enable it to buy sufficient time to overcome its current defects and to ward off would-be competitors.

    Indeed, LinkedIn is probably the most likely competitor for workspace social networks. Whereas G+ helps users manage their relationships on their jobs, LinkedIn is for users who don't have jobs or are looking for better jobs. So LinkedIn might expand to cover users' relationships on their jobs ... or Google might buy LinkedIn ... :-)
  • Users who try G+ will be pleased by its tight integration with Google's other cloud-based applications that have gained widespread popularity -- e.g., Gmail, YouTube, Google docs, Picassa, blogs, calendar, and discussion forums -- all of which have powerful features that facilitate document sharing and collaboration. It also has a special app for smart phones running Google's popular Android operating system. (An app for iPhones is forthcoming)
  • Finally, in my opinion the G+ video chat feature called "hangouts" is the icing on the cake that will greatly enhance the value of its underlying circles. Being able to convene online video meetings with just the right people should interest a wide variety of knowledge workers, but I expect that IT professionals, salespersons, planners, design teams, management groups, project teams, students, faculty, community organizers, and political activists will find this feature especially appealing -- and all the more so if they also use Google's other cloud-based applications and attend these meetings via their iPhones or Android smart phones ... :-)

Readers interested in learning more about G+ are referred to the following discussions: