Google's new social network is a hit, but its sudden popularity may have more to do with the missteps of its predecessor. Peter Pachal
August 13, 2011
When Google debuted its social network, this time for real, this time for really real, about six weeks ago, it was big news. Once Google+ arrived, many wondered whether or not a true Facebook rival was finally here. People focused on features, apps, APIs, and Google's potential to scale to measure whether this thing would ever be a real Facebook rival, or another dud, like Google Buzz.
While all those things are all important, there's another factor at work in the rise of Google+, which, by most measures, has been incredible. And that's Facebook. More specifically, the things about Facebook that annoy and frustrate its users. When PCMag put the question to readers, "Will you ditch Facebook for Google+," a whopping 50 percent said they would. Even if most of those who answered yes don't actually end up quitting Facebook, that statistic illustrates a general frustration with the service that's probably familiar to anyone who's on it.
Facebook has been annoying its users probably since its inception. Now, every piece of software has its problems. Some users of iPhoto might be annoyed that it doesn't have built-in integration with Snapfish. Twitter users may not like that a direct message looks almost identical to an @reply (Anthony Weiner certainly doesn't). That's normal. Facebook's issues go deeper, though. Facebook's integration into our lives is so personal, so far-reaching, that when it does something users don't like, irritation can quickly become outrage.
There have been numerous cases of Facebook making some kind of of change to its features, users responding with an uproar, and then Facebook proceeds to make the change anyway. A good example is friend lists, which were recently replaced with Groups. Facebook gave its users lists, noted that (after a while) only 5 percent of users actually used them, and then took them away.
"I know that they say only 5 percent of users really cared about that feature, but they cared about that feature a lot," says Paul Allen, founder of Ancestry.com, Facebook app developer, and an self-described unofficial Google+ statistician. "In the end, everyone had to comply and go along with all the Facebook changes, some of them pretty radical, because they had no choice."
Unitl now, of course. There have been other social networks since Facebook came on the scene, sure, but Google+ is the only one that has the features, the scale, and—possibly most important—the buzz to be a real Facebook competitor. Until now, quitting Facebook was a difficult prospect. Not necessarily physically difficult (though Facebook does bury how to leave the service on its site), but socially difficult. I personally know at least a half-dozen people who left the network at one time or another only to inevitably return. The reason? Some variation of "All my friends are on it, and I don't want to miss out."
In other words, there was really nowhere to go that offered the same experience, so they returned. But now that there's another place for people to get social online, things could be different the next time someone walks away. Google+ isn't quite the Facebook alternative Google wishes it was, however, since the new service doesn't actually have all your friends on it—yet. While the growth has been extremely rapid, it's still 25 million to Facebook's 750 million.
"Google has a big chicken and egg problem," says social media analyst Lou Kerner. "Nobody's going to use it until people are on it. But that's a problem that all social networks have. But to the degree that anyone can solve it, it's Google."
Even though Google+'s member base is a drop in Facebook's bucket, it's actually a pretty notable drop. Google was selective about whom it let into its private playground when it debuted its social network, making sure the initial users were, in a word, smart. What Kerner sees as a weakness of Google+—that it's been limited more or less to the digital "cognoscenti"—Allen sees as a strength. Google+ is already the cool new thing, and a dynamic population of first-generation users (see the slideshow above) multiplies that perception.
"The geek crowd has fallen in love with Google+," says Allen. "Those first 10 or 20 million people who first jumped into Google+, it's like the cream of the crop in technical and professional circles. I have never seen this kind of online discourse and communication."
In the end, the cool factor could be the one that ultimately matters the most. A couple of months ago, when it looked like Facebook's popularity in the U.S. was starting to wane, I entertained the theory (one of many) that Facebook's time might have come. I dismissed it right away—rightly, since user engagement on the site is still rising—but all endings have a beginning. Facebook, for all its impressive features and vast statistics, not to mention a looming IPO said to be potentially worth $100 billion, just isn't cool anymore. Even Allen says the people he talks to about Facebook say "It feels so much like MySpace."
Cool, almost by definition, isn't quantifiable. But there's virtually no question that Google+ currently has loads of it, and Facebook is running dry. Mark Zuckerberg probably isn't losing any sleep over Google+ just yet, and maybe he's shouldn't given Facebook's collosal size and influence. But he should definitely think twice before pulling the trigger on the next Facebook feature with questionable privacy implications. As soon as Google+ opens its doors fully (it's still invitation-only and limited to users 18 or older), every single Facebook user will have the chance to try something new. And they may decide they like it better.
For more from Peter, follow him on Twitter @petepachal.