The G+ spot

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.

9 thoughts on “The G+ spot

  1. Mark Cianfrani

    While I’m generally at my breaking point with reading people talk about G+ and how it’s not Facebook, obviously you have a lot more credibility on the subject.

    I just wanted to chime in that G+’s niche is primarily among users of other Google products. It also just happens to be that frequent users of Google also tend to be among the younger generation.

    Most of my friends who just “don’t get it” are the one’s who still think Google is just a search engine. I don’t think Google intends to compete but rather they are offering a central hub to unite all of their many glorious (and free) services. I for one rejoice in the day that Google Reader becomes integrated with Sparks.

  2. Seth Finkelstein

    I agree with this analysis. But I’d say there are some significant further implications. G+ being a niche social network for the new-media crowd still helps Google’s main search business disproportionately, as those people are the top linkers and news-influencers. Plus, G+ having them means Twitter does not, so it denies strength to a rival. I think of it as G+ cream-skimming Twitter, by catering to the A-listers.

  3. Michael Metz

    We all have different aspects to our personna (techie, husband, gardener, right/left wing tennis player, etc).

    Different networks can satisfy those different facets. G+ is a techie’s network, FB can be for family, MySpace still for musicians, AOL for old fogeys.

    In real life we frequently hang out in different environments, may not be so different online.

  4. Joe Elwell

    My observations of early G+ users suggests that the benefits of Circles are more than theoretical already. A majority report a benefit I myself greatly appreciate – I can accept every invitation to a perons Circles even though I may put them in my ‘trasg can’ circle.

    As for leveraginf this information to persoinlize searches and othrr info retrieval, well that does remain a theoretical (if potentially powerful) feature.

    Since this would seem to be thie first project Google has done using a fully integrated UX design process, I’m hoping for its success.

  5. Durell Flood

    Man alive! That Huddle thing is even more annoying than a room full of people all talking over each other.



    In your earliest articles, which I sourced a while back, like the 1999 Harvard Business Review article that made reference to Richard Sennett’s work, you talked about society where people had numerous careers, or maybe had no career as such. I often wondered to myself, how appropriate a technology such as Linked In is for that world. Lately in Ireland, almost everyone I know got dispersed from their earlier employment positions, and ended up on the other side of the world, or in a discipline, which was the equivalent to the other side of the world from where they had settled at first.

    Forget about the Eurozone financial stability problems and so on. The big thing, the really big, big thing happening in Ireland and similar technological industry hubs at the moment, is the full realisation of the Richard Sennett type apocalypse. Indeed, buried deep within many a Linked In branch network, are tiny nodes which are sort of early conversational subcultures in their own right. We have the Twitter subcultures here in Ireland for sure. But those are limited more, to persons whose employment doesn’t shift and shunt as aggressively as it does for some, as economic tsunami waves arrive across Europe now in two week cycles, rather than two month ones.

    The Twitter conversations sort of provide the foreground noise, but there is a deeper, more static sounding signal below that, made up of dispersed, migratory worker patterns, that are held together by things like Linked In accounts, with the various connections and ‘groups’ within the walled gardens of such a networking technology. A technology like Linked In, addresses this problem of physical dispersion head on. People tend to move progressively along a path in terms of career advancement, but move erratically in the physical space, in order to keep that linear progression of the career path, which Linked In tries to articulate, somewhat like a curriculum vitae for the digital age.

    Things like calendars have proven rather difficult to translate into the digital age. The stubborn paper version on the fridge door of every household, shows no sign of moving off the stage soon. The felt tip pen and a sheet of paper with boxes and numbers seems un-replaceable by anything the digital arsenal has thrown at it, thus far. The paper curriculum vitae shows some signs of moving off centre stage. But sign retains a strong foothold. BoH.


    For what it’s worth, I really couldn’t get past your characterization of the website as a “pleasant place”. I’m just not ready to term the media that I interact with as “place”. Seems like yet another nutty use of what Uwe Poerksen termed a plastic word. The credibility of discussions of media goes down with the assignation of such a word as “place” to electronic media.



    Astute comment. It made me think, and will continue to make me think for a while. I came across some written material on the ideas you hint at recently, and I’ll just have to back track in my mind, and find that material to read again, before I can issue a full comment.

    But the for the time being, I can think of at least one sense in which electronic media, and the use of the word ‘place’ are appropriate together. It is the sense in which a ‘place’ on the network can be defined more by what it doesn’t include, than what it does.

    I mean, the things we refer to as ‘communities’ (the ones that last over a decade or more) are defined quite strongly in unspoken, but real kind of contract. By a need to define a place, where ‘X’ and ‘Y’ will not be tolerated, in order to enable ‘Z’ to gain it’s true voice. That is, there are other places which over-serve in terms of ‘X’ and ‘Y’, and leave participants feeling starved for that ‘Z’ item, whatever it may be.

    So you may have a ‘place’ on the web, where a body can enjoy access to ‘Z’, without being swamped in an ocean of ‘X’ and ‘Y’.

    To me, where I do get really annoyed is in temporary communities, such as those in university lecture halls etc, where a groups of students are asked to complete projects over a period of time. Lately, in my participation in such, I have noticed too things emerge that weren’t there 10 or 20 years ago. The professors are on a new agenda to promote (A) a lot of digital assignment completion, and (B) a lot of group work.

    What is problematic is that shared digital data lockers don’t exist or work very well for impromptu groups of students, to collaborate digitally. The professors are trying to merge two things, A and B, which pull against each other. The second factor (and this is where it relates back to islandnotes’s point), is the loose use of vocabulary by professors to talk about teams, team work, groups, group dynamic and so on.

    Any understanding of things like the Belbin method (and there are many other theories on group/team psychology), would indicate that a team has a much, much higher bar to qualification, than a mere group. Lots of us work together in groups. But working or participating in a team, is an entirely different animal, and the word ‘team’ aught not to be thrown around with such casual abandon. I wrote several blog entries earlier in the year, where I looked at group dynamics and strange unexpected behaviours within student project groups (not I didn’t use the word ‘team’ there). I agree, we need to exercise care in the words we choose, so as not to dilute their meaning without care.

    “The drone bees maintain a guard at the entrance to the hive and deny access to any worker bees who may wish to enter without their payload. The Queen bee, and all the rest are in the hive making honey out of nectar and are blissfully unaware of the plight of the workers outside.”

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