How Many +1’s Does It Take To Screw In a Social Network?

Alright, let’s start off with where this article came from:

Jeremy BlantonJeremy Blanton – @jb140
RT @respres: “a social network isn’t a product; it’s a place” http://t.co/QVZlUdrA

I caught Jeremy’s RT of Jeff’s post a couple days ago, but I was out in Vegas for PubCon so my attention span was running a little short. But I read the linked article, and I knew I had to dish out a response. First off – I want to make it totally clear that I’m not a Google+ apologist. I’m not sitting around on Google+ waiting for new comments or likes. But to the same vein I’ve almost entirely stopped participating on Facebook too. I’m working on Dashter – I’m living in Twitter – things are good. Conversations abound (especially when you’ve got the right tools).

But this article (written by Farhad Manjoo @fmanjoo) just seemed so far off base I had to whip up a rebuttal – or at least a pragmatic alternative to the doomsday prediction he provided in his article.

What initially caught my attention to the line that Jeff quoted in his tweet was a strong disagreement that his premise is correct. Social Networks are places in as much as any website is a place. But social networking isn’t a place – it’s a process. It’s a verb. And because of that – the place is less important than the process provided.

Is Google+ A Dead Man Walking?

Farhad’s Slate piece argued that Google+ is essentially a dead-man walking: A social network where nobody goes because nobody is there. Jeff Turner had made an unscientific comparison between Google & Facebook a while ago – in which he discovered that people weren’t getting anywhere near the same amount of conversation & traction on G+ vs. FB (which I rebutted actually was about proportional with the size of audience – but that’s a fight for another day).

But Mr. Manjoo’s premise is that ” … there’s no way to correct Google’s central failure.” Which he really doesn’t explain specifically, but I can infer from the continued paragraph that when people wanted to use Google+ in different ways than the original team intended, “… the company ought to have acceded to its users’ wishes and accommodated them.” That appears to be the crux of his argument – that circles and hangouts aren’t important enough differentiators and Facebook has already caught up (to a degree) with some of these features. And his final claim is that social networks are places like bars or clubs. The argument being that in order to have a successful bar – you need to have the most people showing up.

This is a Battle for the Web

But he’s wrong. Google+ isn’t just a different club with the same music as Facebook. Google+ is owned by Google. Their iterative development process can work with social networking just as Facebook has iterated itself dozens (if not hundreds of times) since its inception. Because there are two webs emerging: The original web, and the Facebook web. I’ve even been stymied by commenting on some peoples’ websites because they’ve eliminated all but Facebook comments (yep, I’m looking at you Dennis (mentioned below), OC Register, and many others)…

Dennis CarpenterDennis Carpenter – @24x7Media
A Bold Move – The Recent Introduction of Social Newspapers #newspapers http://t.co/HNKS348r

Dennis wrote this piece a few days ago – but I think it demonstrates the rapidly emerging expanse of “the two webs.” This sort of adoption makes me think back to the days of AOL-only content walls – only this time Facebook isn’t charging the audience and they’re enabling better sharing tools. But let’s be clear – this isn’t a matter of picking a bar to go to for the night. This is a battle between two online juggernauts vying for the future of the Internet.

So in this battle – how many +1’s is it going to take to prove that Google+ is a viable network? Even if every single Gmail user on the planet adopted Google+, you’d still be left with a network potentially 1/3 – 1/5 the size of Facebook. But it doesn’t sound like that’s enough to nullify the voice of the naysayers. Twitter – arguably the second-most “powerful” social network next to Facebook is barely a network at all. It’s a springboard for interaction, to be sure – but there are barely profiles, no “walls” to post on, no “timelines” besides lists of 140-or-less proclamations. WordPress.com – the largest blogging service provider boasts a respectable 25+ million blogs. That’s the equivalent of 1/32 the size of Facebook’s 800m roster. According to Quora (take it for what it’s worth) there are a mere 9m Tumblr users – that’s 1/90th the size of Facebook. Apple – the invincible company that can do no wrong – has successfully failed at both Gamecenter and Ping.

Yet for all these failings – social networking is happening more and better than ever before – and emerging in surprising and useful ways. But Google+ isn’t a dead man walking. Hardly. Google has demonstrated that it’s going virtually all-in on this bet – even to the extent of potentially threatening their core business (search results & advertising) by blending social results with “algo” results. This isn’t a dead man walking. This is a giant just taking it’s first few steps.

Google Can Survive the Adoption Curve

Assuming that the place does matter – in this case Google’s place being the traditional web versus Facebook’s walled social web – Google can play for the long run. It can introduce the “+1” throughout it’s suite of popular tools. It can enable web developers to tinker with the “+1” on pages. Their API isn’t even part-way open. They’ve barely scratched the surface of what they might be capable of in terms of personal profiles, circles, hangouts, the extremely poorly executed “sparks” or dozens of other existing or soon-to-exist feature set. But unlike most other social networking companies – Google’s business isn’t anchored on social networking. It’s anchored on search – and though Bing has made inroads, the truth is that Google is still the dominant player in the indexed web. Google can survive the life-cycle to adoption better than virtually any other company on the web (perhaps Apple and Microsoft can survive as well thanks to their cash reserves and bountiful revenue streams). Facebook is dependent on lock-in by it’s users. Just like a popular bar, Facebook must stay trendy to keep the crowds coming back. But over time, users will wander. They’ll play around. I’ve tinkered with my G+ profile, and added a Dashter Google+ profile for the future.

Google+ doesn’t have to earn millions of new users every day. It just needs to survive. It just needs to quietly become valuable. It just needs to quietly become interconnected. It just needs to grow a little every day – bit by bit – until it’s unquestionably the alternative to Facebook. There will be a battle to come – but we’re not there yet.