Yesterday’s launch of the Google “+” suite of products was a pleasant surprise. Google’s “social network” project has long been rumored, and Google’s approach to social — a suite of independent tools — was forward-thinking. It is abundantly clear that Google has great minds working on this project; I enjoyed seeing Googlers I follow start Tweeting about their parts of “+”.
The knee-jerk reaction the announcement of these tools is to contrast them against “traditional” models of social software, such as the profile-centric ego network embodied by Facebook. “+,” much like Twitter and post-2007 Facebook, thrive on activity streams within a set of bounded networks; these tools move beyond a profile-centric notion of sociality and into content-rich activity streams. “+” treats these streams holistically – they could be comprised of links (e.g. Circles) or real time conversation (e.g. Hangouts). In a way, this next-generation “social networking” is somewhat of a return to roots, leveraging technologies and modes of interaction that are well-worn and comfortable rather than new and challenging.
The natural question for Google’s “+” is: Will it succeed? To consider this question, we must define success. One definition of success is displacing Facebook; I do not believe this is Google’s goal. Google’s long-term viability depends on social in the sense that search must be made social; to do this, Google must — through one way or another — discover our social networks and employ this information in relevance judgments. Google’s definition of success, I believe, is the creation of a technology that enables the enumeration and active maintenance of each user’s weighted social network going forward.
The maintenance of a network going forward implies long-term vibrancy – for “+” to be central to Google’s social reinvention, we must keep a copy of our up-to-date social networks in “+.” The logic here is simple: Google must be able to adapt to network dynamics to stay socially relevant. If you move to a new town or job and fail to update your “+” then the relevance of social search will suffer.
Over the years, I’ve thought and written about a few successful models for social networks. Sites such as Last.fm or Flickr depend on social objects around which we construct shared experience. LinkedIn succeeds because of latent value in networks; you probably don’t check LinkedIn a ton – but when you are in need LinkedIN may contain very powerful ties. Curation has emerged as a powerful model – think Tumblr other sites where highly selective sharing is the norm. Finally, the traditional model of social is that of the ego network, in which a site overlays your social networks with a technical infrastructure. Facebook or Myspace are canonical ego nets, and Google’s “+” fits squarely in this mold with promises to “bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software.”
As Google and countless other companies have discovered, the development of an ego-centric social network site is challenging. Getting past the standard UX/UI challenges, we must be motivated to use the software – and I have argued a key factor for success is that the site addresses a situationally relevant information need. Facebook was so successful because it captured a population in the midst of life change; the software was immensely useful for addressing the information needs of students. Perhaps my greatest worry about “+” is I can’t figure out how the software is situationally relevant.
At this stage, it seems that “+” attempts to differentiate based on privacy. That is, Google feels that monolithic models of sharing are “awkward” or “broken” – and the definition of sharing groups solves the problem. I have worked in privacy long enough to know two things. First, privacy is not a market differentiator for privacy-inelastic populations. Second, privacy is not a feature – it is a process. My work with Woody Hartzog on boundary regulation shows that privacy is just one of many motives for disclosure regulation. danah boyd and Alice Marwick’s latest draft on teen privacy practices highlights the practice of finding privacy in public. While I appreciate Google’s nod to the problems of boundary regulation, I am skeptical of the feature’s actual value.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to drive interest to a social site. Designing something intrinsically cool is one. Designing something intrinsically valuable is another. Making a process less expensive — in terms of capital or labor — also works. I look at the Hangout product and I see something that I had to pay for from Skype or Adobe. But what I don’t see is a clear informational advantage to motivate use of the service, and that worries me.
With the launch of “+,” Google has demonstrated facility and creative thinking. Google has also clearly been chastened by Buzz, which was nothing less than a dangerous, brute-force attack on our social graphs. Google’s social search strategy requires our networks, and it requires networks that we maintain over time. To construct a vibrant social place, Google must move beyond cool design or cost displacement, it must create a product that is valuable, that truly betters our lives. That is Google’s challenge, and I will be interested to see how “+” rises to the challenge.