Google+, Google’s latest attempt to crack social networking, marks a refreshing break from tradition for the Behemoth of Mountain View. First, unlike its predecessors, G+ entered the arena with something other than a spectacular and fatal bellyflop. Second, the site actually seems to have been designed rather than just engineered. It’s a pleasant place. Third, it does a nice job of carving out at a newish space in a crowded market. The benefits of the site’s most talked about feature, Circles, at this point remain largely theoretical, but the way it presents information is distinctive without feeling unfamiliar – a neat trick.
In its first weeks of invitation-only existence, G+ has reportedly managed to attract something like 20 million members. That’s impressive, but probably not as impressive as it sounds. Getting people to check out a buzzy service is pretty easy, particularly when Google’s muscle is behind it. Getting them to keep using it is a different matter. My unscientific survey of the site indicates that there are a whole lot of accounts that are still just shells.
A social network is, like the internet itself, a network of networks. The network expands by tracing the intersections among fairly well-defined social groups – a kind of connect-the-dots process that gains network-effect momentum as it proceeds. Facebook understood this dynamic well, as it grew from one college to a small set of campuses to the entire student world and on to everyone and his brother. That’s one of the main reasons Facebook is now closing in on a billion members. (MySpace didn’t understand the dynamic very well, which is one of the reasons it has turned into Nowheresville).
Because it begins in homogeneity, a social network often quickly assumes a particular character – a culture, as we like to say these days – based on the people populating its early core networks and the way that they initially use the service. This foundational culture plays a crucial role in encouraging use and loyalty early on – it’s the magnet that holds everything together and pulls in new members. But if the foundational culture is too strong and too narrow it can end up limiting the eventual growth of the network. Magnets repel as well as attract. To succeed on a global scale, Facebook had to transform its early student culture to a more mainstream culture – it had to go from Shitfacebook to Straightfacebook. It has been very successful at that – it’s a heck of a lot easier to entice older people to a youth culture than to do the opposite – though in the long run its mature, increasingly white-bread culture may prove to be its Achilles heel. A hipper network could quickly siphon away Facebook’s younger members, leading to a network implosion of breathtaking magnitude.
Google+ is probably not that hipper network. Its foundational culture feels much more professional than social, which means it’s starting in a very different place than Facebook did. All social networks strike some sort of balance between functioning as a publishing platform (formal speech) and functioning as a conversation platform (informal speech). Facebook has always skewed toward conversation; Twitter started with a conversational skew but quickly shifted toward a publishing skew (though it continues to have conversational subcultures). Google+ skews pretty heavily to the publishing side. Its early core membership seems dominated by what might be called the new media axis – a combination of techies and media types who love to talk shop. These folks aren’t generally too keen on Facebook (too conversational, too intrusive, too untrustworthy), and while they tend to be heavy Twitter users, many of them have become frustrated by Twitter’s limitations. Google+ provides a compelling blog/tweet hybrid – a stream of published nuggets which carry their comment threads with them as they flow by – which is attractive to the new media axis, whose members look to social networks more for information exchange and self-promotion than for shoot-the-breeze conversation.
Google+’s appeal to the new-media crowd has been the secret to its early success. It is also quickly shaping its foundational culture. The problem for Google, assuming it wants to turn G+ into a mainstream social network rather than a niche one, is that this culture is both strong and narrow. It attracts a particular set of users, but it repels pretty much everyone else. G+’s prospects may, in other words, be circumscribed by the culture that its early success has already established.