July 10, 2011
@ 01:02 PM

I’ve been joking with Omar that Google+ is the new FriendFeed. I recently posted this on Google+ and was asked to explain what I meant since Google+ doesn’t support importing of content from other services which was the key feature FriendFeed. The reason I say this is that Google+ fulfills the same need that FriendFeed when it first came out.

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Robert Scoble in 2008 about FriendFeed titled Loving my FriendFeed

I love my FriendFeed. Here’s a list of top bloggers who are using the service. Why do I love it? It’s one place you can find all my stuff and, even, comment on it. It’s amazing the discussions that a 140-character “Tweet” on Twitter can generate. I subscribe to a ton of people on FriendFeed and notice that often the conversations after a Twitter message will be 1000x longer (and generally more interesting) than the Twitter itself.

In my previous post I asked what problem Google+ solves and the answer is above. Google+, like FriendFeed before it, gives people a place to subscribe to and participate in conversations around content produced by people they are interested in.

Why Twitter Doesn’t Solve This Problem

Twitter relationships have been described as a public interest graph. Specifically, Twitter is a way to keep on top of people and content you find interesting whether it is tech news sites, bloggers, celebrities, government officials and even people you know. However there are a number of key gaps in the Twitter user experience which FriendFeed fixed and Twitter still hasn’t even though people have been complaining about them for years.

The first problem is that is really difficult to have conversations on Twitter. Here’s an excerpt from a TechCrunch post made in 2008 titled Actual Conversations On Twitter Not Possible Until Twitter Lets Us which explains the problem

One of the big complaints about Twitter is that conversations are hard to follow. Users can write a response to a Twitter message (or anything else), but the easy way to do this is to add an @[username] tag to the Twitter, which refers back to the original Twitter user. But by then that original user has often moved on to other subjects, and it becomes impossible to follow the conversation.

The fact is that Twitter purposefully doesn’t want users to be able to track conversations. The content begins and ends with a discreet Twitter message, up to 140 characters long. Competitor Friendfeed does a nice job of tracking conversations by letting users reply to actual messages, not just users. Twitter, for whatever reason (possibly to keep things simple), just doesn’t want that. And until they do, nothing is going to change.

The ability to have actual comment threads about a status update as opposed to disconnected @replies is a more satisfying experience for many users. As Mike Arrington stated above, the challenge for Twitter is that this would change the dynamics of the service in ways that take away some of the character of the service.

The second problem is that Twitter doesn’t give a public way to indicate that a piece of content is interesting without also sharing it. Specifically, there is no analog to Facebook’s “I like this” within the stream (not to be confused with the like button social plugin). Twitter has favorites but it’s actually meant to be a way to bookmark posts not to tell people you like the status update. There are now sites like Favstar.fm which have garnered a sizable user base by giving people a way to get “I like this” style functionality from Twitter and see how many people have favorited a tweet.

Both of these problems are fixed by Google+ and it is unsurprising that the same sorts of people who loved FriendFeed are not only on Google+ but are its most popular users. The question is whether Twitter will fix these problems with their experience given that this has made people pine for alternate services. Given that they didn’t try to address these when FriendFeed was at the height of its hype curve, it seems unlikely they will unless they see declines in their more mainstream user base.

Why Facebook Doesn’t Solve This Problem

Facebook relationships are an attempt to mirror our offline relationships online. The problem with this is captured in Paul Adams’ excellent slideshow The Real Life Social Network v2

The problem with Facebook is that people you may find interesting (i.e. your interest graph) or that find you interesting are not necessarily people you want to sharing the same space as your family, friends and even coworkers. A good example of this problem are the following suggestions I saw when I logged into Facebook this morning.

Alexia Tsotsis and Steven Levy are both journalists who work for TechCrunch and Wired respectively. Although I find the articles they write interesting, I don’t want to have them be on the receiving end my mobile phone videos of my son playing in the park or my check-ins from places around Seattle nor do I want to be subjected to their similar personal updates.

The combination of asymmetric following (people can subscribe to my updates without my accepting a friend request) and the ability to place people into groups (i.e. Circles) which can then be used to provide limited visibility to various updates is how Google+ solves this problem for various interest graphs. Neither of these features exists in Facebook today and while I suspect they will add the latter especially since Paul Adams now works there, it is harder to imagine seeing asymmetric follow ever showing up on Facebook outside of Pages.

Where That Leaves Us

I expect that both Twitter and Facebook will lose some chunk of people’s time to Google+. However Twitter is more vulnerable than Facebook, because Facebook has been fairly resistant the rise of the “interest graph” by building features like Facebook Pages which allows people to follow their interests in the same stream as updates from people they care about offline. For example, it is interesting to note that the most popular user on Twitter is Lady Gaga with 11.5 million followers but on the other hand her Facebook fan page has 40 million fans. Secondly, there really isn’t a gap Google+ fills with regards to communicating and staying in touch with the people one cares about offline via a social network.

On the other hand, Google+ is more in the same product space as Twitter being interest graph related which can be seen by the usage patterns of its early adopters. It’s also telling to read comments from Google+ readers on how much less time they now spend on Facebook and Twitter.

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Time spent is a zero sum game. The time I’m going to spend writing this blog post is time I’m not going to spend mowing the lawn, playing with my son or getting familiar with the Annihilation map pack for Call of Duty:Black Ops I purchased a few days ago. We were reminded of this reality last week when MySpace was sold for $35 million after being purchased for $580 million six years ago. This is déjà vu for people who remember Bebo being sold for $10 million by AOL after being purchased for $850 million just two years earlier. In both situations, the culprit for this significant loss of value was the decline in traffic caused by the fact that people were spending more time on more popular social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter have virtually sucked all of the air out of the room for social media sites. Facebook is where people go to communicate and share with the people they know in real life. Facebook hasn’t just stolen attention from other social networking sites but from the entire web as people are spending more time on Facebook and less time on the rest of the world wide web. However Facebook missed out on a particular niche which was then capitalized on by Twitter.

Twitter is where people go to be informed by and share information from news makers they care about. For many, Twitter has replaced blogging [and MySpace] as the way to stay connected with people who are interested in what you have to say as a major or minor celebrity. For me, I spend less time writing blog posts or using Google Reader because I’m on Twitter. This has led to many proclaiming that Twitter has killed RSS.

So what does all of this have to do with Google+?

For Google+ to be successful it means people will need to find enough utility in the site that it takes away from their usage of Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps even replaces one of these sites in their daily routine. So far it isn’t clear why any regular person would do this. Having to re-invite all your friends to another social network and have yet another stream to follow & check for responses to your posts is a pain in the ass not a benefit. Twitter got away with it because it actually had value that you couldn’t get from Facebook and by the time Facebook caught up with certain features Twitter was already established in its particular usage niche.

So far the Google+ sales pitch is that it makes it easy for people to share things with private circles of people. This isn’t a terribly differentiating feature. Facebook has multiple features for doing this such as friend lists and groups. Google+ has a snazzier UI for managing lists but snazzy UIs can be copied as CircleHack, built by a Facebook engineer, shows. Even Twitter has protected accounts which provides a drop dead simple way for people to control who they share with without having to manage multiple overlapping lists of people. Google+ will need a better pitch than that to have lasting value.

I’ve been in the industry long enough now to consider people working on Facebook, Google+ and even Twitter as friends or at least acquaintances. It is a little sad to me that for some of my friends to win, others will have to lose. That is life.

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Categories: Social Software