Thursday, June 28, 2012

Google+ - Social Network?

It's been about a year since Google+ launched with great fanfare and even greater anticipation in the tech media. Being late to the party of the currently much hyped "social networking" space, Google+ has the benefit of being of being a more polished and more thought out platform than some of the older, more established players. Being a very flexible and generic platform, launched without a particular pre-imposed usage or application, it was interesting to see how its usage would pan out.

Before Google+, I was using at some point or another
  • Linkedin for keeping track of the changing fortunes of my former colleagues
  • Facebook for goofing around and keeping an eye on what friends and acquaintances were up to
  • Blogger for potentially pubic postings which hardly anybody reads
  • Flickr for public photo-sharing
  • Twitter to try out what all the fuss was about 
  • email for most of the purposeful communication with the inner circles of my social graph.
On Google+ I was trying out both a very private use-case of sharing personal stuff with people I know in real-life as well as the public one of maintaining a public profile - i.e. a combination of the Facebook and blogger use-cases. My posting doesn't make much use of the sophistication of circles - it's either private or public.

Like most people, I found that for the private use-case, there were not enough of the people in my real-life social graph active on Google+, as most of them were already using Facebook for that and didn't see any benefit of investing in yet another place for the same purpose. I personally prefer the user-experience and visual appearance of Google+ over Facebook - specially for photos, but that doesn't really help if everybody else is staying on Facebook. I am still hoping that this might change a bit more in the future...

The real reason why I keep using Google+ is to consume a stream of news, commentary and faits divers from a variety of sources. The use-case is much like a next-generation, prettier RSS feed reader.

There are established news outlets from different countries, some doing a better job of posting a steady stream of interesting and/or intriguing material than others, there are some new media people, bloggers and online creator promoting their own stuff as they do on pretty much any channel available, and there are some people who are posting links to interesting stuff they find.

The third group might be the most intriguing and novel use-case for Google+ and similar platforms: the ability to easily organize, curate, editorialize and contextualize content from other sources.

Appart from a few personal ones, my circles are not reflecting my real-life social network, but rather a list of media-subscriptions and interests. Some of the people or organizations I am following have millions of followers and would not recognize me if we bumped into each other in the street...

As a platform, Google+ is flexible enough that it could be used to directly create content on the site, i.e being a very crude and restrictive blogging or content management system. Or it could be used twitter style as a news-wire service for head-lines and to advertise off-site content. The most common usage pattern in my input stream seem to be posts which augment off-site content (or on-site re-sharing) with a bit of commentary. The site encourages that as a post is most naturally either a link, a video or some pictures with a bit of accompanying text. This is restrictive, though not as restrictive as the famous 140 character limit of Twitter, but it ensures that post look reasonably good on any channel Google+ supports, the the web-site as well as specialized app based experiences for mobile phones and tablets, which already represent a significant part of the usage.

What Google+ and maybe other similar sites seem to be good at is to remove friction. Users need an account, a profile, an identity to enter the site, but once this hurdle is passed, it is very easy to create or share content and to "engage" with what others have shared by commenting on it. Commenting is as old as web2.0, but outside a single platform (e.g. blogger or YouTube) or without identity syndication, the barrier to entry is just too high for most people. On the publisher or "sharer" side, the barrier is similarly lowered. Setting up a blog or CMS for online publication is daunting and requires a certain level of commitment - having a smooth and good-looking dedicated IOS and Android app challenges even large publishers.

Large and established publishers like traditional media and celebrity blogger, seem to use Google+ mostly as yet another medium to promote their online-brand, maybe adjusting a bit for the culture, tone and style which seem to have emerged among the current users of each platform. But the low barrier to entry for posting content and the emphasis on "sharing" rather than "creating" creates opportunity to act as guide, editor, commentator and curator for online content created by others and many Google+ users seem to do that quite successfully.

In this post from 2 years ago, I had pointed out that curating online content might become one of the next frontiers for helping users to cope with the information overload of the Internet. Maybe Google+ is at its core the first platform which is optimized for editors, commentators, curators and not primarily for content creators?

Is it a new social network?  From my current usage and applying a strict old-fashioned definition of a social network as a platform for interaction in some way with people which I know in real life, then no. But in a year, Google+ has managed to become a platform where some users have found a distinctive new voice and been able to build a loyal audience for that. Maybe we just need a new label for that...