Renewed Battle Between Facebook and Google Goes Beyond Services

By Hunter Burk, University of Michigan 

You’ve probably heard plenty over the last month about Google+ and its Circles and Hangouts and whathaveyous. But don’t let anyone fool you. While Circles definitely gives Google+ a feel unique from Facebook’s, for the most part any gap in features between the two services should be closed quickly (see: Facebook video chat). There will be niches to both services, sure, and for some that will be sufficient enough to decide where their social networking loyalties lie. But which service(s) are left standing at the end of it all will be determined by two factors apart from this.1) Social networking isn’t much fun without anyone to network with.

Google’s biggest obstacle will be providing social networkers enough incentive to make the jump from Facebook to Google+, or at least to peacefully coexist on both networks. Because of the unique nature of social networking platforms’ reliance on users, they don’t work particularly well if no one is using them, yet no one is bound to use them if they don’t work well. And since Facebook just recently reached the 750 million user plateau, it will take a lot to get the Google+ directory to be anywhere near as replete as Facebook’s. Enter the question seemingly everyone has asked, “what am I supposed to do with my Google+ account now?”

Time is of the essence, as Google must attempt to capture as many users as possible while the novelty of Google+ is still able to put it at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Ideally, the service will be able to reach a plateau of users which will make the community sustainable. But Google has already stumbled out of the gate addressing this. By releasing the Google+ service on a limited public beta, they have potentially shut the door on those who are intrigued to see what all the fuss is about, yet lack an invite. Not accepting all of those people is a mistake. Apart from whether or not people like what Google+ has to offer, users aren’t likely to stick around and share with others if no one else is listening.

The length of users’ honeymoon with the service will be dictated in part by what sort of tolerance people hold for maintaining multiple social profiles. This tolerance has been tested before with the likes of services such as LinkedIn and Twitter, but both have uses distinct from Facebook’s. Google+, on the other hand, is meant to fill the same void that Facebook fills. How long of a leash people will give Google+ to prove it can take Facebook’s place is as-of-yet untested. However, it will surely be lengthened by the fact that…

2) People hate Facebook.

Seriously, has there ever been a company more reviled by the people that use it? Nearly everyone and their mother has tried to leave behind Facebook at one point or another, but it’s darn near impossible. It has become synonymous with your social life. Want to find a place to go out during the weekend? Check out which events you’ve been invited to. Looking to snoop on that cute guy/girl you met last night? Look them up. Facebook has even become the de facto place to share content and instant message.

Facebook’s mishaps in privacy have been well documented over the years, which have led to the company earning every bit of its undesirable reputation. But there have never been any decent alternatives to flee to. And none that the majority of your friends would be using anyways. Once again, it’s not much fun to network without anyone to network with.

That is why it looks like Google+ has some real legs to it. Google’s previous attempts at social networking have flopped, and in spectacular fashion. They’ve even had privacy issues of their own appear in their Google Buzz service. But Google has done something Facebook has not: it has learned from its mistakes. Think about it: how many times do you continue to see a friend post about some new privacy filter box you have to check/uncheck to make sure everything you do isn’t broadcast out to just about anyone that wants to see it? You’d think they’d have learned their lesson after all this time. Yet the data Facebook mines from its users is where they make their money, and they’ve sent the message loud and clear that they value that data over their users. And why not? Most of us have gone right on using it anyways.

This is precisely what Google+ seeks to exploit. Everything about the platform hearkens back to the early days of Facebook, from the simplicity of its layout to its (for now) prisitine reputation. Better yet, all of those people you never had to deal with back then, including employers, mothers, and 10 year-old siblings? They can all be easily dealt with through Google+’s Circles functionality. As Facebook has bullied us more and more over the years, most of us have accepted the status quo. But now that Google+ has been presented as a viable alternative, it will be interesting to see if everyone that has complained about Facebook’s tactics finally puts their money where their mouth is. And if early results are any indication, they are doing just that.



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