Google will not run Circles around Facebook, but it gets a +1

While there are already countless articles about Google+ and many more sharing up-to-the-minute statistics to emerge from the burgeoning network, I reserved my thoughts until now. I needed time to think about it.

Part FriendFeed, part Google Buzz, part Facebook, part Google.com and all of its properties, Google Plus represents a fresh approach to social engagement not seen at this level since the early days of Twitter. In the U.S., we have only a few top traditional TV networks, CBS, ABC, and NBC. In social networking, we now have a top three to compete for the online attention of not only Americans, but also the world–Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

The new Google is already gaining momentum. For instance, Google’s +1 button is reportedly being served 2.3 billion times a day. More than 1 billion items are shared and received per day in Google+ (or Google Plus). And, Google+ has also earned over 10 million active in a short time. While that number may seem trifling when compared to the likes of Facebook and Twitter, 10 million is nothing to wince at. In fact, in just 16 days, Google surpassed a milestone that took FourSquare two years to reach. As you can see in the image below courtesy of Leon Haland, Twitter took 780 days and Facebook 852 days to reach 10 million users. In only three weeks, Google+ hit 20 million. Adoption only continues to soar despite its exclusivity.

The only way these 10 million people joined the network was because a select few were given the privilege to invite a small set of friends. This tactic only spurs the sharing of invitations like a secret password into a deliciously trendy speakeasy. With every gushing experience shared, demand mounts. During the weekend of its debut, over one-third of all Tweets were related to Google Plus. In fact, some predict that Google Plus will become the fastest of all social networks to hit 100 million users, a new metric that appears to represent the equivalent of 0 to 60 mph (or 0 to 100 kph) in the automotive industry.

Exclusivity only goes so far however. At someone point, Google either thrives on the experience it creates or it succumbs to an all too familiar outcome, abandonment.

Google’s Concentric Circles

For years it seemed that Google couldn’t grasp the human laws that govern social networking. The intentional and unintentional spectacles of exhilaration that launched Wave, Buzz and +1 showed the world that a culture of engineering is only part of the formula required for social networking. It would take a culture of sociology, ethnography and psychology to understand the dynamics of human behavior and package them into a meaningful service that real people would embrace. It would take a team of great minds such as Chris Messina and Paul Adams, a former user experience expert at Google to realize that to +1 Facebook or Twitter, would take a novel and human approach.

Adams’ presented a very basic yet powerful explanation for how human beings connect and share with one another using Facebook as an example of the limitations that exist today. In this case, Facebook, the most popular social network with 750 million users worldwide, encourages people to build one social graph with up to 5,000 friends. In turn, Facebook offers various levers and switches to divide the social graph into a series of dedicated communities through its Lists and Groups and products.

Here, technology does not imitate life. But, you probably don’t need a social scientist to tell you that this functionality does not mirror how you connect and communicate in the real world. To Facebook’s credit though, how people connect, discover, share and talk to one another helped people evolve as digital natives and will continue to do so.

In his presentation, Adams visualized exactly what any anthropologist or sociologist might tell you, people don’t build just one social graph in real life. They cultivate a core group of 4-to-6 communities (or interest graphs) where each is focused on an aspect of one’s life, from work to BFF’s to other specific interests. Some of these communities stand the test of time, some expand and contract as people come and go, and many are merely temporary, usually based on short-term projects or curiosity.

In a study of 3,000 randomly chosen Americans, most participants maintained a strong network of only four ties. The example Adams shared on Facebook was telling and representative of the challenge many face when “networking” online today.

One user, “Debbie” demonstrated the opportunity for a more seamless form of networking. As Paul would demonstrate, the benefit of circles was evident.

1. Debbie moved from Los Angeles to San Diego.

2. Debbie was still connected to a group of friends she made when she lived in Los Angeles.

3. Some of those friends worked as bartenders in a gay bar.

4. She now also maintains a network of new friends in San Diego, where she currently lives, in the same social graph.

5. Of course, she is still in contact with her family.

6. Debbie is also an active swimmer and trains ten-year-old kids in competitive swimming. She has friended other trainers and some of the kids in her class.

In this portrait, it’s immediately clear that Debbie maintains, at least conceptually, four distinct groups. What Debbie shares on Facebook, unless she’s carefully mixed her settings, will most likely reach everyone with whom she’s connected. In Adams’ example, picture of late night fun at the gay bar where she used to work were visible to her ten-year-old students simply because Debbie would Like or comment on them. As is, it’s too confusing. At the same time, consumers aren’t necessarily thinking about segmenting their online engagement. Users want control at their fingertips, not in the settings window, to share with the groups of people contextually linked to each update. This is where Facebook Groups and Lists can improve and also where Google Plus shines right out of the gate.

Seemingly scripted for TV, but very much rooted in reality, Paul, the would be father of Google Circles, has since left Google and moved to Facebook. This is an interesting move considering his research and methodology around digital networking. His book, Social Circles, is awaiting publishing while Google decides whether or not he is permitted to release it to the public.

Google Circles its Play

Google has done something that Facebook and Twitter have failed to do, make creating groups of friends visually pleasing and also fun. In the first few hours of logging in, I immediately started creating circles related to family, friends, work, and other top and temporary interests.

People are gushing at the ability to create Circles. Time will tell if people change their behavior enough that the Google differntiator truly becomes a value proposition. Even Google Circles do not carry out Paul’s original research. While Circles distinguish networks from nicheworks, they do not account for the separation between strong, weak, and temporary ties within  each group. There are still subgroups within every group that require distinction.

For example, in each group, we maintain tiers of contacts, those we trust, those we know, and those with whom we may or may not be acquainted. What we share in these nicheworks is different in the real world than it is online. To borrow Adams’ image from his Google presentation, some may not broadcast their address or phone number across an entire group, but they might for some. As is, Google Circles still assumes top line engagement even if it’s within a focused community.

Moving forward, Google Circles will need sub-circles if it is to mimic how we engage in the real world. The question is, will people embrace it or is it simply too much work? I often think about and study how online behavior affects offline self esteem and character. Even though we maintain circles in real life, we’ve been conditioned to seek simplicity in online engagement. Remember, many of the groups we create in real life are often temporary. To mimic this behavior online introduces complexity I’m not sure people are actively seeking. There may be greater value in mass peer-to-peer engagement for a majority of social updates. Having the ability to share exclusive content with a fixed subset of any community is helpful, but most likely representative of a minority of overall engagement. That’s just a hypothesis however. Again, time will tell.

What’s clear is that the elegance and ease of creating Circles is enough to get people talking. It may prove beneficial enough to generate demand for similar functionality within Facebook and perhaps Twitter. Keep in mind that Facebook employees are an elite squad of developers and thinkers. It acquired FriendFeed and also Beluga among many other services to improve, I assume, how people communicate with one another within their social and interest graphs. There is more to see from Facebook on this front.

The Human Algorithm

I’ve always believed that the social Web will give way to a socioeconomic hierarchy of sorts which I dubbed PeopleRank or People Rank (sorry TechCrunch, that was me.) The idea is that everyday people would complement the digital algorithms of the web to amplify content they find interesting or useful related to the context of their search or discovery. Even though Twitter offers its Retweet button and Facebook users can Like content to boost visibility within the network’s social stream, Google’s +1 introduces everyday people to the idea of flagging great content across the entire Web.

If you’re logged into Google, the results are curated based on the activity of your friends. At some point, +1 will apply a layer of PeopleRank to content and destinations similar to the way it does so today with PageRank. It represents a natural fusion of SEO and SMO. To counter this, Facebook must boost the discoverability of content without upsetting its delicate privacy balance.

Data Portability

Who owns your personal data in your social network today? The answer most of the time is the network. For years people and businesses have invested time, resources, and also money into cultivating the right network, curating valuable content, organizing special events, and bookmarking interesting commentary and destinations. At the moment, much of this content is locked away never to see the light of any other system. Google is taking a somewhat open approach allowing users to export their contacts and data. Today, Google is experimenting with a service called Google Takeout. This handy feature allows people to export a list of sites that they’ve +1’d.

Of course this is something that’s developing over time, but it is important. My friends over at DataPortability.org have been fighting this fight for quite some time. I believe that in the evolution of Google+ and Facebook, data portability will become paramount. It will take a concentration of user demand to move networks toward a more proactive and open approach.

Google Brand Pages

Due to overwhelming demand from businesses, Google+ will introduce an early version of its Brand Pages. Initially, Google removed business-related pages only to invite them into a test phase that will officially welcome a manageable stable of companies to test and help to improve the experience. Brands see this as a tremendous opportunity for direct-to-consumer engagement. On Facebook, some brands have earned more than 30 million Likes creating a dedicated brand network not yet seen in previous media.

For example, the Top 20 brands by the numbers on Facebook boast impressive audiences:

1. Coca Cola (31,762,653)
2. Disney (26,613,752)
3. Starbucks (23,574,606)
4. Oreo (21,864,091)
5. Red Bull (21,220,373)
6. Converse All Star (19,880,308)
7. Converse (18,977,840)
8. Skittles (18,386,827)
9. Playstation (16,245,633)
10. iTunes (15,862,234)
11. Pringles (14,765,300)
12. Victoria’s Secret(14,384,903)
13. Window’s Live Messenger (13,926,945)
14. Ferrero Rocher (11,676,898)
15. Monster Energy (11,492,620)
16. Nutella (10,696,260)
17. iPod (10,530,905)
18. Adidas Originals (10,433,947)
19. Xbox (10,388,218)
20. Dr Pepper (9,927,828)

Ford Motor Company was one of the first companies to build a page and in an impressive move, asked people what they expected from the company. Ford’s Scott Monty and team will then build a dedicated engagement strategy for Google+ that I would hope differs from its approach on Facebook and Twitter. Dell is working on expanding its renown social service model by bringing its team to where a customer’s attention is focused.  Google+ seems like a natural extension given its early momentum. When in doubt, ask. That’s just what Michael Dell did recently. And, over 800 people seemed to genuinely support the idea.

Brands must realize that the culture within each network and the corresponding expectations of its denizens are unique to the network as well as to the nature of their connections. Far too many brands have already lost sight of this important pillar of engagement contributing to either social blindness or an intentional unlike or unfollow. Perhaps Google+ will serve as a reminder that brands must embrace a philosophy of networking with purpose. What’s key to any consumer engagement strategy in Google+ is to recognize that brands aren’t generally categorized with all of the other Liked pages as in Facebook. In Google+, brands will require a social vs. anti-social approach. Why? Because consumers will categorize brands by various circles based on the nature of the relationship as well as the level of expected communication and value. Brands on Facebook and Twitter should also take note. Eventually, consumers will stop following brands that do not consistently deliver some form of tangible or even intangible value.

Culture and Flow

Speaking of culture, the sensation of engagement in Google+ is vibrant. Buzz is in the air and much of it is warranted. Many of my friends on Google+ are those I view as my inner circle. Google+ is a wonderful way to stay current with their work and observations. But with Circles, I’m also able to tune my stream based on the relevance of context at the moment. The real-time flow of Google+ is also dynamic. It keeps me engaged to the point where I find myself consuming or curating information at much greater ratios than creating original content.

Is it densely populated with the usual suspects? Of course it is. But, keep in mind that these early champions have helped make Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and all of the other emerging “social” technologies what they are today. Their public observations, reviews, and recommendations contribute to the expansion and improvement of each network.

The ability to reply to individual comments is more than missing. I believe it’s a missed opportunity. But still, threaded conversations, like in Facebook, are appreciated over the continuous, but still addictive flow of Twitter. That’s what Google+ is about, continuous engagement and sharing that hums at a different, not necessarily better, frequency than Facebook. For posts that will yield higher-than-average engagement, I also appreciate the ability to mute only that particular stream when I’ve moved on to other discussions. It’s a nice touch.

Rich conversations can move from the stream and into a 10-person Hangout, a video chat that brings the conversation alive in a fulfilling way not seen in other social networks to date. Notably missing is the incorporation of hashtags. Although Chris Messina, largely recognized of the father of Twitter hashtags, is leading development on the Google+ project, he does acknowledge its importance in Google+. He is also currently looking into integration strategies.

This is after all a very public field test. And, Google is listening to improve the experience.

Social Networks: Your Social OS

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of social networks as hubs for the digital version of “you.” The idea was that Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+, become your attention dashboard. And through the cultivation of your social and interest graphs, the apps that further personalize the experience, and those that plug into other applications such as Web sites, documents, collaboration tools or those that translate into the real world, essentially create a social OS. Ideally, this platform eventually connects the online with the offline, creating a complete experience drive though one integrated dashboard.

With the rise of Facebook, users have been introduced to the idea of networking and also the potential for personal and professional collaboration. I wondered when Google might respond with a complete social platform and it appears that Google+ is officially its answer.

Google+ and the ability to become the only place you need to communicate, collaborate, share, discover, and work, creates a social OS that is promising to the say the least. I believe that in the long run, Facebook and Google will compete as a Social OS for all you do online. Think about it. From sharing and collaborating on documents, grouping and coordinating work or activity steams, housing email, hosting phone or video chats, managing geo location, to search, Google and Facebook are already on a significant collision course.

Communication:

- Gmail vs. Facebook.com email

- Google Voice vs. Facebook/Skype

- Google Huddle vs. Facebook/Skype

Sharing:

- Like vs. +1

- Digital memories such as photos, events, and videos

Collaboration:

- Google Docs vs. Facebook/Microsoft 365Live

Location:

- Google Lattitude vs. Facebook Places

Search/Discovery

- Google.com vs. Facebook/Microsoft Search

Social Commerce:

- Google Deals vs. Facebook Deals

- Google Wallet vs. Facebook Credits

Mobile

- Android, iPhone (Smartphones), iPad (Tablets)

Entertainment

- Gamification

- Apps

This is an area of particular interest to me. Our attention dashboards will offer a much more integrated experience where collaboration and productivity increase as the vision of each network crystallizes. I’m sure your management team or IT department will appreciate hearing this news.

This is Just the Beginning

As the headline reads, I don’t believe Google Plus is a Facebook killer. While the audience has set the stage for a great duel between the Internet’s Goliath and the social web’s Goliath–I’m not sure Facebook could be viewed as David any longer–there will be no fight today. That doesn’t mean however that we won’t see the pair in a Roman coliseum battling to become the social OS for humanity. But for the near future, Google and Facebook are together helping the world socialize outside of the inbox. Competition, or the semblance of it, is healthy for everyone, especially us.

The key difference is that Facebook is operating under a mission to improve how the world connects and communicates. Mark Zuckerberg is steering his ship in a particular direction. Myspace co-founder Tom Anderson humbly wondered aloud whether or not “social” is in Google’s DNA or in Google+ for that matter. I’m not sure I get a clear idea of Google’s vision for social yet or if it even exists. Vision, mission, direction, these are powerful beacons to lead any industry, and besides this official memo and an attractive bonus structure, Google may need to circle its leadership team to think through human algorithms.

Nonetheless, Google Plus is inviting. It’s intriguing. It is promising. What it is not, is the end game. Google is however pressuring the hyper-connected us, to spread ourselves all the thinner to learn where and how to spend our time within the mix of all the other networks.

We’re learning.

We’re adapting.

Evolution is perpetual.

Social networks will continually iterate and innovate. That’s part of what makes this so exciting. The question remains however, is social in Google’s DNA or culture? Without it, Google might have +1′d for now, but without social studies, the new social darling might become unliked by the masses. In the end, you are the best judge of what works for you. The answer may be for the time being, that many networks prove their value in different ways. Google+ certainly offers early advantages, but this is a long journey. Much of the success of any network will be linked to any team that listens and adapts. Therefore, your experience is more important to the future of networking than you may think.

UPDATE 1: Google+ for iPhone is now available.

UPDATE 2: REPORT: How Google Plus Stacks Up Against Facebook – Interesting statistics

UPDATE 3: Google+ acquires Fridge. A clue from founder Austin Chang…”Right now, Google+ is asymmetric, we’re going to help them create shared spaces.”

UPDATE 4: Google+mishandled business accounts in the beginning and will now expedite business pages

UPDATE 5: Google+ Social Gaming Network confirmed and is on the way

UPDATE 6: Google+ pulls in 20 million in 3 weeks

UPDATE 7: Google’s stock has now gone up 27.85% since the launch of Google+ via @emilychangtv

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+


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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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