Facebook Fiddling with What Works Could Be an Opportunity for Google+
After a period of waning interest for Google+ the new social network is picking up steam again as Google keeps adding features and improvements. It has already found its legitimate place in the social elite with Google+ buttons seen everywhere side by side to those of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Alas, just yesterday I’ve heard a major podcast refer to their Google+ page as if it mattered more than their Facebook page, as if it’s now “cool” to have a Google+ page.
In other words, it would appear Google+ is here to stay, for better or worse. It would also appear that Facebook, which is seen as its main counterpart, stands a chance of inadvertently helping Google+’ continued growth by violating a well known folk rule: “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it”.
Facebook obviously had a winning formula for a long time, or it wouldn’t have grown as rapidly and as spectacularly as it did, so I would think that they would’ve been prudent to try and not to mess with this formula too much and too quickly. However, if you look at the slew of changes Facebook users have been subjected to over the last year alone, and how dramatic the implications of some of those changes are, it doesn’t seem like they were all too careful about preserving what works.
Don’t get me wrong though. Some of the changes made are good and welcome improvements, such as making it easier to make lists of friends and select whom to share with, something that makes for a decent come back to Google’s Circles. Adding the ability to subscribe to people as an alternative to friending them is also a nice thing to have.
However, some changes point to much riskier ambitions, and their ongoing implementation is putting the working formula at risk. Perhaps the best example of this are Facebook Gestures, the ability to do anything on Facebook and have it announced to others. You can do more than just “like” and “share” stuff. Now you would “listen”, “watch”, “read” and have all of these activities be fed into your friend’s news stream as well.
This auto sharing, as Molly Wood from CNET explained, is threatening to drown the value of real sharing in a sea of noise that probably needlessly informs everyone of everything you are doing right now through Facebook. And ruining sharing is ruining one of the fundamental elements of what makes a healthy social network work.
Devaluing the act of manually sharing things is not the only concern, however, and there are differing opinions about it. What Facebook is trying to do here also reveals ambitions that not everyone might like to participate in realizing. It seems pretty clear that the ideal Facebook is pursuing sees it as a primary platform of the web. If you can listen to all the music, watch all the movies and shows, read all the news and books – and all without leaving the confines of Facebook.com – your entire digital life ends up being facilitated by Facebook and apps running on it.
The “best” thing of all is that all of these activities are automatically shared with your friends, giving them an unprecedented map of your life. An even “better” thing is that this information is likely to be available to advertisers who can, even if anonymously, pretty much know who you are as a person and what you might like to buy at any given moment. Facebook thus ends up possessing something akin to a virtual copy of yourself.
To accomplish this ambition Facebook needs to get major content providers, from music streaming services to news sites and book publishers, to make Facebook apps and have users subscribe to those apps. Ideally, users would consume all this content primarily through those apps as opposed to visiting the native site directly. Spotify has apparently gone as far as to require a Facebook app to allow access to such content.
This need to get as many users as possible to subscribe to these apps has Facebook actually interrupting the process of reading shared content with an interstitial that asks people to subscribe to an app through which content was shared. As Mrs. Molly explains, this further helps erode the value of sharing on Facebook by making it harder to read what was shared, putting shares on the same level as annoying FarmVille or Sims City requests. The irony is that this creates friction, just the opposite of what Facebook is hoping for, something they call “frictionless sharing”.
Meanwhile Google+ is gaining steam, and in comparison to where Facebook is going, it is still a fairly simple proposition, albeit Google style. Sharing and liking stuff, or rather plus-one-ing stuff, is still the name of the game. There is no “listening” or “watching” or “reading” or apps nagging you to do it through them. It might just be that Google is approaching the working formula just as Facebook, led by their ambitions, is departing from it.
Of course, it is possible that Google+ will follow in Facebook’s footsteps some time down the line and try to pull the same “your life on Google” stunt. But if Facebook’s attempt does bomb Google will have to tread this territory very carefully, or they might risk history repeating itself.