I appear to be somewhat unusual among my professional colleagues in being a big Facebook user; I think this is mostly because most of my friends are younger than me, typically in the 18 to 25 age range, a demographic who never really knew an internet before social networking, and who rely on Facebook for most of their online life – it’s like Outlook for young people. By comparison, older and more technically advanced people seem to find many aspects of Facebook annoying and for various reasons either want to ditch it entirely or migrate to a service that they feel will suit them better. In particular, a lot of online bloggers and journalists seem to have dismissed or ignored Facebook for whatever reason but are drawn to the various Google offerings.

With this in mind, the recent launch of Google Plus has been illuminating, both in terms of the attitude towards it from both demographics, and in showing how Google may not entirely understand this space that they’re arguably attempting to enter for the 4th time (after Buzz, Wave, and Orkut).

Firstly, one of the things I’ve noticed on Google Plus at this early stage are many people singing the praises of features that they believe to be exclusive to ‘G+’, but which already existed on Facebook. For example, the key ‘Circles’ feature already exists on Facebook in the form of Friend Lists and has done for years. (To set one up, click Friends > Manage Friends > Create A List. Once you’ve done this, you’re prompted to add each new friend into the various lists, just like G+ prompts you to put people into Circles.) Yet it is being talked about as if it is a revolutionary advance in privacy – such as articles like this one at the Huffington Post, which claims that Facebook’s lists don’t address the problem ‘in a meaningful way’, when in fact the features are almost equivalent. This honestly baffles me, and I can’t help wonder if a certain audience is biased against Facebook and favours Google. MG Siegler at Techcrunch says that Circles are “the most visually appealing and simple way to create groups”, and maybe that’s true, but Google will need to do better than something that can be hacked up for Facebook in one night to compete at this game. Besides, the same writer reported that nobody wants to make lists – so making it easier is still probably just catering to a tiny minority, the minority who probably cared enough to go to the effort of doing it on Facebook anyway.

G+ promises more features for the future, such as Huddles (group messaging of some sort – although Buzz wasn’t too great on that score), Hangouts (group webcam stuff, which I don’t think will take off), etc – but little of this is in place yet. What about the stuff it doesn’t do?

Currently profile customisation is limited, so unless you already know someone, there’s little to suggest you might want to befriend them. This is pretty poor if you want to extend your social graph. This was a massive part of MySpace, a somewhat diminished part of Facebook, is pretty poor on Twitter, and is currently looking like being almost extinguished on Google Plus. Personally I think this gradual decline is a big problem, but that’s a post for another day.

There’s not yet any G+ equivalent to Facebook Chat, which is used very extensively (1 billion messages per day 2 years ago, and I see no reason why that would have dropped since then). As I mentioned above, my older and more techy friends are quite different and prefer just to use email, but the fact is that email is dying off among new users and being replaced by the various FB messaging systems, FB Chat being a key part of that. If G+ doesn’t cover that base, it won’t reach those people, the ones who are not interested in having to keep a separate window open for email, and for whom the idea of needing a standalone email client is as bizarre and anachronistic as needing a Gopher client.

There also appears to be no direct private messaging. I’ve had various people suggest workarounds for this – limiting a stream post’s privacy to just 2 people (which it would seem will scroll off your news stream and disappear along with everything else, and won’t be immediately obvious as a direct and personal message), using Google Chat (which most users don’t have enabled), sending an email (which currently appears to be impossible since the default seems to be to disable receiving email within G+, until you reconfigure your account – and quite frankly I don’t want to have to leave the site to respond to messages), etc.

(Oh, and since I mentioned that a message can scroll off the bottom of the stream, I should probably point out that you currently can’t search most of this content. That’s right, the undisputed kings of search have released a social network with a worse search capability than Facebook. What’s that all about? When a company fails to exploit its key advantage you have to suspect genius, idiocy, or complacency. I’m guessing it’s a 50/50 split of the last 2.)

Here’s a massive one – G+ doesn’t have events. This might seem trifling to a lot of people who don’t have a very active social life with their online friends but for the Facebook generation FB Events are key. If you’re not on the FB event invite, you typically miss the event entirely. Only a tiny minority of us on Facebook are supplementing it with iCal or Google Calendar or whatever – most FB users just let Facebook tell them what is happening and when. And this is what I meant by saying Facebook is like Outlook for young people – it’s got all your messaging, your contact lists, and your agenda right there. The tools it offers compared to Office or various standalone tools are anaemic by comparison but that isn’t a problem for most users. Possibly the weirdest thing here is that Google already have a Calendar app, but it’s not integrated into G+ at all – why? This seems to me like a massive oversight.

Finally, there are currently no business or brand pages on G+. I can see why they might not want to have it flooded with cybersquatters from day one but on the other hand being able to opt in to stuff that interests you is a big draw for Facebook users. G+ makes it easy to follow celebrities celebrity bloggers but that’s not really the same.  And it’s actually hard for such celebrities to moderate the comments on their public posts, as a post from Tom Anderson points out. Yes, the MySpace Tom Anderson.) They do have a plan for future 3rd party development – you can sign up here – but we won’t know how well this works out for a while yet.

And yet despite all this, on my Google+ stream I see a lot of people feeling hopeful that this is the site they’re looking for. This seems to come from a mixture of 3 types of people:

  1. the people who didn’t realise that Facebook already did everything they wanted (eg. supposed tech experts who couldn’t or wouldn’t perform the 3 extra clicks to set up a Facebook friends list)
  2. the people who hate Facebook on principle, because of their feelings towards their business practices or the attitude of Mark Zuckerberg (currently the most followed member of Google+, ironically enough. Tom Anderson was #16 at the time of typing this.) Many of these people are having fun filling their G+ feeds with animated gifs of various representations of Facebook being defeated by Google. It reminds me a bit of the Sony vs Microsoft vs Nintendo wars in that a lot of this seems to be as much about tribalism as it is about actual features. But G+ suits the needs of these people, which is fair enough.
  3. the people who find Facebook annoying for technical reasons. This latter group seem to want extra privacy, less ‘noise’ (ie. fewer friends, no strangers, the ability to mute comment threads), no distracting chat (“we have email for that!”), and so on. In my opinion – and I admit this is making an arbitrary distinction to back up my own point – these latter people are not really looking for ‘social networking’, but are looking for something smaller. It’s the equivalent of preferring to have friends round your house to going out to bars and clubs to meet people. Facebook performs both roles, and thus suits the younger demographic who wants both, but the older demographic only wants the quieter option, usually with their existing social circles that they have little interest in expanding, and find the general social networking aspect annoying, intrusive, or both. For these people, Google Plus is potentially the perfect solution – assuming enough of their friends will migrate, or maintain accounts in both places.

But as it stands, Google Plus isn’t in a position to supplant Facebook, as the feature set is not comparable and the missing features are actually quite vital to Facebook’s offering. With the convenient asymmetrical following system but not much else, it’s more like a superpowered Twitter. In fact, it’s hard to see how Twitter could have survived against Google+ if they had been released at the same time, and even now G+ may well sap people away from Twitter one by one anyway as people tire of 140 character limits in an increasingly post-SMS world. But Twitter is not the arch-rival to Google in the advert-selling and web-owning space that Facebook is, meaning this comes across as Google picking entirely the wrong battle.

So, what will happen? I anticipate Google rolling out fixes for most of my complaints – but the buzz (pun not intended) will have died down by then. That would leave a potentially compelling platform for the techy people who stay on G+ and no real reason for anybody else to leave FB, especially when network effects are considered. It’ll take either some sort of catastrophe on Facebook or some sort of amazing new feature on Google Plus to bring about a mass migration on a scale large enough to overcome that inertia, and until that happens, there’s a risk that the early adopters on G+ will be forced to come back to where the people are.

But if nothing else, at least the existence of a decent competitor should keep Facebook on its toes, and prevent it from radically mistreating users, now that they have something that should eventually shape up to be a real alternative. The next year will be interesting, at least.

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