In the beginning, there was MySpace.
Well, sort of. MySpace was the genesis of the social networking phenomenon, if not the first social network in existence. It brought the concept of social networking to a larger number of “netizens” (remember that term?) than ever before.
MySpace was predicated upon human nesting instinct. Users logged in and could (relatively, for the time) easily create their own digital home, complete with the background music, color scheme, and obnoxious animated .gifs of their own choosing. However, actual social interaction wasn’t all that rewarding. For a social network, MySpace was incredibly introverted – users spent much of their time decorating their digital homes instead of visiting each other.
Facebook was built interaction-first. Certainly, it provided a digital home, but one that was highly limited in its customization. The interface faded away in the background as a result, and social interaction became the focus. It was precisely because of this that Facebook succeeded while MySpace faded away to a digital graveyard.
However, the success of Facebook is what is killing Facebook. Near its inception, college friends would post photos and inside jokes with each other. They would meet acquaintances through Facebook that would ultimately become real friends. Now, it seems that literally everyone and their mothers has a Facebook account. The average number of ‘friends’ is now 130 and climbing – personally, I have found that most of my ‘friends’ have at least double that amount.
It’s become a social norm to connect on Facebook, and seen as almost rude if a friend request is denied. As the numbers swell, you may find your news feed dominated by that weird guy you met at a conference who seems to be using a pseudonym and posts links to every news item he can find on a single subject, that bored housewife you met through a friend who posts every inane detail of her home life with unfortunately descriptive posts and vivid photos, your elderly relative who types personal advice to you in his status with his email signature on the end, and so on. The noise is deafening.
There is a distinct need to separate people into different facets of life. Entirely different social networks were created to fill that need – LinkedIn has become the de-facto place to connect with your boss and colleagues while preventing them from seeing the real reason you called in sick. However, the time and effort needed to update multiple social networks is prohibitive, and thus, LinkedIn serves mostly as a digital business card instead of a social network. When was the last time you updated your LinkedIn status?
Facebook has tried to combat this issue in a limited fashion with the introduction of friends lists, followed by groups. However, the percentage of FB users who use friends lists are in the single digits, and groups don’t allow you to categorize people in ways that might offend them (“People Who Post Inane Shit All The Time,” for example). Privacy and circumspection are not the default on Facebook, and are thus not utilized the vast majority of the time.
This is why G+ will win.
Reason one – Circles:
Circles are the only way to interact with friends. If you want to “add a friend,” you simply drop them into the appropriate circle. G+ creates and defines the first few circles for you – Friends: “Your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.”, Acquaintances: “A good place to stick people you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to.”, and so on. As the G+ invites roll out slowly, users will find that they are able to categorize the people in their life to the appropriate circle (or circles) naturally and easily. As they post links, status updates, and photos, they not only will be able to select their friend circles, but are forced to do so. Easily selected update streams make it easy for users to hear the news from each of these as well. The entire network is built around circumspection.
Reason two – Ubiquity:
If you already have a gmail account, you will soon have a G+ account. It aggregates all of your information for you in a convenient if somewhat creepy way, making onboarding as low cost as possible. It ties into all of your Google services, from Youtube to Picasa to even Google search (through +1). This was explored more thoroughly on this well written post: http://www.allfacebook.com/the-one-google-plus-feature-facebook-should-fear-2011-06
Reason three – Damn Good Design:
G+ has rolled out at the same time as Google’s visual refresh, and it looks good. The black bar at the top fades into the noise of the browser chrome except for when you look for it, and the content is emphasized by dimming down everything else. G+ learned UX lessons from Facebook and added some much needed tweaks – the most notable, in my opinion, being the ability to view and interact with notifications without navigating from the current page. In addition to allowing G+ interaction on every Google page in existence, this makes notifications more lightweight and satisfying to the user.
Combine a common need with near-forced onboarding and build it over solid UI/UX, and G+ emerges as a compelling contender in the social networking ring.
What could Facebook do to compete?
Facebook has the advantage and disadvantage of numbers. Everyone knows what it is and where to find it. If it wants to compete with G+, however, it will need to implement some sort of circumspection system. With every change on FB notoriously moving away from circumspection and privacy, it would be a significant philosophical and conceptual change. Even more challenging would be the feasibility of implementing such a system. G+ has the advantage of starting from scratch – one by one, users will rebuild their social nets, and categorize their contacts as they do. While I’m sure that my G+ net will eventually be quite large, the act of categorizing one at a time makes it feel lightweight and natural. Categorizing my 600+ friends on Facebook, however, seems quite a daunting task.
Facebook may have to implement a (better) automatic categorization and filtering system in order to compete that users could use a jumping-off point. Perhaps it could auto-create ‘circles’ as based on statistically-proven friend matrices:
– “actual friends” could be filled with contacts within a certain age range and geographical location of the user
– “colleagues” could be sorted by work and/or education entries
– “similar interests” could be filled with people who often post links from the same news sites
– “family” could be extrapolated based upon last names and relationship statuses
…and so forth.
In addition, Facebook could attack this from a business perspective, and try to get in bed with Apple the way Twitter will be in iOS5. If the large base of iPhone users can share to Facebook much more easily than G+, that might be compelling enough to not switch.
What are your thoughts?