So, yes, you know, Google is yet again launching a social thing. And yes, everyone and their cats have promptly commented. What can i know? I’ll give my take anyway.
It will come as no surprise, but i’m on the naysayers camp. No, Google Plus is not the next big thing. And it will not kill FaceBook. And it misses the point. The whole of my point comes down to a disagreement with the following point by a Googler named Urs Hölzle:
In March 2010, only a month after the Buzz debacle, [he] decided to kick-start a new effort. In an e-mail […] Hölzle acknowledged that fundamental way people use the internet has changed. No longer could Google operate without making its products more personal. The social challenge required decisive and substantial response within Google. He proposed a sort of social-graph Manhattan Project[…]. His memo became known as the Urs-Quake.
Something fundamental changed about the internet. NOT. It hasn’t. Nothing changed. It is the same old web. It is the same old tool. It is only being thrown at a different set of data. People are using the net to gossip. Fact. But the net is still the net, and gossip is still gossip, and if Google becomes FaceBook, AOL wins, which is to say we are back to walled gardens even if Big G is the provider.
Everyone seems to think that “Social is the next big thing”. The real issue is much more nuanced.
A bunch of very different stuff on the net have progressively become more and more time-sinks. This is older than you think, being with us since the very beginning, as in mail-lists and usenet and fotolog. Lots of different people wanted to monetize it, which brings us Tuitr and company.
The only thing in common all those sites seemed to have in common is that they are all geared towards gossip, or more precisely they were all susceptible to being turned into gossip machines. Turns out humans are suckers for good gossip, thus we got all hooked.
But none of that changes gossip into something different. It is not “the flow of information”, it is not “a new way to use the web” and it is not useful. It is a time sink, it will remain a time-sink and if you turn it into anything else it will loose it’s very essence.
Where does this leave Google?
Exactly where it was before. Time-sinks and gossip-machines have been with us since forever. If you turn the web into something that feeds you headlines while you sit passively, it is just television all over again, with worse seating. And the attempt to subvert the web into a walled-garden of “premium info” has been tried again and again and failed. Even with the “premium” being your friends. It never worked simply because Goo…er the plain simple web got what you wanted faster.
So, now after all the 1.0 tech has gotten well established enough to attract the idle musings of people (gossip, that is) the latecomers want to monetize it. That is tricky. Twitter seems to be un-monetize-able. Zinga is a media company, as in the reason Yahoo didn’t buy Google when it could. And then there is FaceBook.
FaceBook firmly believes that hoarding user-data is the way to money. Frankly, Zinga knows it better. FaceBook’s strategy is to become the new telly. Unhappily for them, it wears out. The whole web-gossip thing can be very addictive, but it wears out. Anyone who had FaceBook for enough time, or any one of them for enough time, knows that after some time you stop spending so much time there. At some point it just isn’t as fun as it was. And it seems this limit is fastly approaching for FaceBook. What it means is not that people will get out of the site, it just means the site will be less and less meaningful. To the point that it becomes just one more site.
The way i read it, the web teaches us one lesson about the whole “social” thing: Mostly improvised. There is no social-graph. There are graphs, and centralizing the graph is not as important as searching different graphs. That is why FaceBook does not allow Google to spider it’s database. The problem with FaceBook, from Google’s perspective, is not that it is “more social”, it is again that it is a walled garden. The reason Google cradled Android.
If Google becomes the new FaceBook, with one social graph, it also looses search, it also looses the multiplicity of graphs.
Of course, you can believe that, deep down somewhere, they plan on opening their graph at some point, and then coming back to being Google, embracing the open. But read between the lines. The whole “Emerald Sea” thing was the perfect occasion for corporate-warriors to overthrow the engineer ethos of Google and push a hoarding-mind onto the very structure of the company:
Sensing a leadership vacuum, [Vic] Gundotra, who had arrived at Google after a long stint as a Microsoft executive, made it his mission to channel the energy into a more focused, sweeping effort. […-…] Because of the pressure the stakes and the scale, Gundota insisted that Emerald Sea should be an exception to Google’s usual consensus-based management style. He successfully argued that he, with Horowitz’s help, would set the vision. Even the founders would step back.
Sadly, it seems, Google is in a lose-lose situation. If he loses, FaceBook creates a walled garden, if it wins, itself becomes the walled garden. But the fact of the matter remains: Google fighting FaceBook is like MicroSoft fighting Netscape. The wrong enemy. The walled garden approach seems to be self-defeating in the long run, despite encouraging first results, which means FaceBook is hot right now but don’t invest too much on that. I would say it is a non-issue, but, it seems, maybe Google should fear it’s own fear.
The real enemy? Truly? I would say it’s Greece. Or Lehman Brothers, before it. I would expect the Peak-Oil induced long economic crisis to be more troublesome to Google’s long-term success than FaceBook, and that looks like a problem no algorithm can solve.
Meanwhile, BitTorrent found a way to make distributed chat. That is extremely hot. In fact, i’ll go out and venture that the big big thing going for the walled garden approach right now is the exhaustion of IPv4 address space, which in turn makes opening up your ports for P2P a pain, which means non-nerds don’t do it. This is supposed to be temporary as IPv6 gains traction in the next few years.
As for me, i’ll begin an experiment of logged-out browsing. Since all the big dogs are fighting for my data, it seems prudent to withhold it. Not that i believe i can escape the harvesting, i’ll just start paying more attention to the marginal spaces.
As Google should do.