Archive for the ‘sns’ Category

Following on news from the Guardian that Facebook saw a nearly 2% decline in active UK users over the holidays, I thought I’d briefly cover some of the implications of this news, from my perspective.

  • Obviously this has been coming for quite a while in core markets. As the Guardian notes, in the UK Facebook has 53% market penetration, second only to the US at 54%; in terms of gross users, the US has 169M, Brazil 65M, India 63M. Clearly the play is hoping on further expansion in the latter two markets – but that proposition is tenuous, both because the of the fast-growing but still-smaller middle classes there, and because,
  • Facebook still doesn’t get mobile. Its apps are still only-OK in terms of usability, and as witnessed by the Instagram terms-of-service clusterfcuk – which resulted in more than 50% decline in users – Facebook has a fairly poor understanding of the mobile user. Which is especially unfortunate for its future expansion in emerging markets – e.g., Brazil, India – as connectivity there is primarily through mobile devices, and not desktops.
  • Facebook as public company has always been a questionable proposition, as its whole model of ad-rate-growth-driven-by-traffic-growth-driven-by-user-growth is inherently untenable given that… at a certain point you run out of users. Also, the fact that every social network site so far has seen long-term time-on-site decline from its core users. Basically: if you’ve been shorting $FB, you’ve got to be feeling pretty good right now.
  • Facebook as social utility isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Too many people, content providers, websites, and the general infrastructure of the Web have too much locked in for that to happen. But there are various ways that it can evolve from here. I’m still convinced that long-term there will be a competitive market for identity hosting, and that Facebook’s best move is to get in front of that in both setting open standards and providing a premium service; but we shall see.


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Having had a few weeks to digest both my initial thoughts on Google+ and the experience of actually using it, I thought I’d step back and offer a 30,000-foot-view of where I think things are, and are going, in this space.

First: Google+ is still pretty nice, even if it doesn’t quite know what it is. That’s fine! It’s been a month in psuedo-beta, and has 10M users. What I think the larger picture is here, is this:

Email is dying. Smart people are helping kill it. Google understands this, and that gMail is at this point a continually depreciating asset (something MSFT never recognized about Hotmail). Google+ is among other things, about providing gMail users a bridge to a post-email digital social space with minimal transition costs (always the biggest barrier to entry for a new social service). The social graph is already built into gMail users’ contact lists – Google+ is just about bootstrapping a different interface onto it.

There are real privacy concerns about Google+, and the mass deletion of accounts shows that Google is still struggling with psuedonymity. But long-run, the proposition is clear for both Google and its users.

Let me backtrack and say that I don’t think email will die, exactly, but rather become a mode of communication used for some things, sometimes, but not everything all the time. Physical mail, similarly, isn’t disappearing anytime soon (well not until 3D printing really scales up), and while telephony might be wearing different hats these days (i.e., mobile and digital rather than locked-position and analog), the fundamental dynamics are the same.

What we’re seeing is a rationalization of communications mediums, with people – young people especially, who don’t have the cruft of legacy communications patterns built on top – only using what makes sense for a given use, at a given time. For quick and short communications, this means text messaging – and given the shift in mobile plans towards offering unlimited texting, this doesn’t make anyone money, because save for the NSA and NewsCorp, nobody’s scanning and indexing your text message for relevant advertising content. Likewise, the efforts of both Facebook and Google to incorporate SMS into their user interfaces just haven’t caught on – why make the easiest way of communicating less easy?

Advertisers don’t know how good they’ve got it right now – despite click-through rates of at best 0.1% on banner ads, they’ve never known more about their target audiences for less money. From here on out, as more and more communication moves from the public social web and indexable email back to a range of peer-to-peer communications (TXT, telephony, video chats), it’s only going to get more and more expensive to know what people are thinking and talking about.  Because you’re going to have to actually ask the people.

This is why it’s a shame how comparatively little institutional support there’s been – and how slow IRBs have been in addressing the pace of online user research – for research around online sociability (no sour grapes here though! SILS is kicking butt!). Apart from the great work of a relatively small cohort of pioneering researchers who’ve been gathering data when and how they can this last decade, we’ve just lost a lot of data: those questions that went unasked, data went unscraped. And when perceptions of an interface aren’t asked in the moment, it’s not just gone, it’s gone-gone – who can remember what Facebook looked like 18 months ago?

But this is also an opportunity. Going forward into a world of multi-channel communications presents a fascinating set of new questions not just about why thus-and-so interface creates certain effects, but what people want to do, and how they realize those desires in different contexts. This is changing constantly, and shows no sign of slowing down. The real opportunity is to build on what we as researchers (both academic and market-oriented) already know about online sociability by asking questions focused not on the vagaries of changing interfaces and services, but rooted in the first principles of how people use communications technology. When we can keep asking those same questions over time – building real longitudinal data that can take into account the ebb and flow of seasons and services – we will build from knowledge to understanding. And when we understand, we can become the masters of our technologies, not the other way around.

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It’s been less than 10 years since the initial rise of Friendster, the first mass-popularity online social network. Since its rise and (lamentable) fall, MySpace has grown and shrunk, and Facebook pioneered an ever-upwards trajectory. Though the implementation and particular social networks harnessed in each of these cases has been different, all have shared a similar initial launch strategy – focusing on the tightly-knit real-life networks of young people. For this reason, it’s become something of an article of faith that this is how social network services do and have to build and grow.

This is the core of Henry Copeland’s skeptical take on Google+, which I encourage you to read if you’ve not yet done so. I’m on record as saying that Google+ is already a success, and Henry’s post has clarified for me exactly what I meant and where I see it going. Henry’s main points are that (and I’m paraphrasing here – do read the whole thing):

  • community is the value, not the interface
  • you can’t grow a social network from the top-down
  • elite, diffuse users are the wrong initial population
  • Google doesn’t know social and doesn’t have the patience to grow a social network
I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but I also think that in the case of Google+ much of it is beside the point. What I think is the point, is that Google already has a massive collection of embedded, real-life social networks. They don’t need to do a frontal assault on Facebook at college campuses, don’t have to do a below-the-radar launch in Silicon Alley (which would be, at this point, totally impossible for either Google or any other social network), and don’t need to worry as much (which isn’t the same as “not at all”) about the particular shape of their multiplier effects. What they do need to worry about is how to expand the range of social tools that their current massive user base of real-life social networks uses within the Googleverse.
Keith Kleiner has a very positive run-down of his reactions to Google+, and while in the long-run I think that the enthusiasm for enhanced privacy features and the multiple-context management of Circles will prove more popular among the technorati than the general public (as killer apps, anyways), I do think he hits the nail on the head here:
That secret weapon is everything that Google has that is not Google+.  A formidable armada of Google products including Gmail, Picasa, Calendar, Docs, Maps, Search, News, Youtube, Chrome Web Browser, Blogger, Translation, Android, and more stands at the ready to assist and join Google+ in the battle for the future of social networking.  These products are best in class, extremely difficult to replicate, and are used by more than a billion people across the planet.  As these products are seamlessly integrated with Google+, we are about to witness an incredible two way explosion of value and utility.  Google’s products will gain all of the powerful attributes that social networks deliver – virality, discovery, crowdsourcing, sharing, “liking”, and so much more.  Meanwhile, Google+ will be given a steroid boost of products that deliver content, tools, and capabilities to its hungry hordes of social minions.
That’s exactly right, and I’d like to go a little further here. Google’s social network service won’t look like other social network services because it can’t – because of who Google is, and because of Facebook’s near-monopoly on certain sectors of the social graph. What it will look like will be different, and potentially more organic. As danah boyd excellently documented [PDF], in the early days of Friendster there were two main user communities who latched on to the service, both located in the Bay Area – gay men and Burners. When the two communities eventually discovered each other, the reaction was something akin to, “What are you doing here?” Social network services since then have been the story of this context collapse again and again, over many kinds of communities. There are many, many, many  more communities and real-life social networks already extant and embedded in one or several of Google’s currently-owned suite of social services, from gMail to Blogger to YouTube. Google+ will be a success not if it displaces Facebook but if it can deepen usage of Google’s already-formidable user base on the social web. As Luis Suarez notes in an insightful post,
“Its unique opportunity to be pervasive enough to be part of Google’s entire ecosystem makes it tremendously powerful.”
Because of the varied nature of that ecosystem and where different users find value, the growth, shape and experience of Google+ will vary substantially between different networks and different users. But that’s okay! Different people have different needs, both socially and informationally, and an approach that views mediated sociability as best addressed by a suite of services and possibilities – which is how I conceive of Google+ and how I believe they do, as well – is fundamentally just different than the one-size-fits-all approach of Facebook (or Twitter, or LinkedIn, or any of the predecessor SNSes)

Anyway, it’s clear Google has turned a corner. They have now proven to everyone that they can do social and get on the playing field.

But they haven’t yet proven that they can convince your mom to use it and that’s just fine with me.

That all is a long way of saying that I really love Google+ and I don’t care what the average user thinks of it. I’m getting a ton of utility out of it and I am having a blast with it. Hope to see you there soon, but please leave yo momma over on Facebook, OK?

In point of fact, my mom will actually like Google+ just fine, but Scoble’s point is a good one and flows the other way, too. There are plenty of “average users” who will like parts of what Google+ does just fine, and won’t give a fig that Robert Scoble and assorted other nerds (e.g., myself) are using it for if it can help them chat, share pictures, and video chat all in the same place easier than they could before with just gMail, Facebook or Skype. Does that count as “beating” Facebook? I don’t know that it’s that simple – I expect Facebook to be around a while, but not at the current level of buzz or valuation – but if Google+ can give a better and more holistic social experience for its users, I would count that as a victory for everyone.

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Google+ and Social Interfaces

Several days into using Google+ myself, I can say for certain that whatever the long-term impact of the suite of services will be, it is in a meaningful way a complete success. What it’s successful at is something I’m still trying to articulate, but a key aspect of it is that it just feels different. This is not for nothing. I’ve been using the Web regularly for more than 15 years now, which in Internet time is several kinds of forever.

Steven Johnson, in his (1997!) book Interface Culture – still massively relevant today – wrote that:

Conceptual turbulence – the sense of the world accelerating around you, pulling you in a thousand directions at once – is a deeply Modern tradition, with roots that go back hundreds of years. What differentiates our own historical moment is that a symbolic form has arisen designed precisely to counteract that tendency, to battle fragmentation and overload with synthesis and sense-making. The interface is a way of seeing the whole. Or, at the very least, a way of seeing its shadow, illuminated by the bright phosphor of the screen.

What Google+ has succeeded in doing is introducing a new set of shadows, with a different kind of synthesis and sense-making.

danah boyd, who’s been researching mediated sociability for almost as long as anyone, noted on Google+,

I don’t know why it entertains me to no end to surf people on a new SNS. Serious 2003 flashbacks happening here…

I concur entirely, and I know exactly why it entertains me. When done well, a new SNS is a new kind of experience – a new way of looking at other people, your connections to them, and what your social world looks like in a way that just isn’t handled particularly conceptually well in our own minds. The interface determines how we see this, and the interfaces of different SNS have done a great deal to shape their cultures. The ability to see who looked at your profile on Friendster made it addictively voyeuristic, and the restrictions on who you could see (only within three degrees) made expanding your network part of the fun. Facebook’s early walled-garden safe space made it very much a college dorm hangout, and as its interface has evolved away from its initial audience, the interface (and accompanying changes in News Feed content) have mirrored the closed-off direction of dialogue in that space.

Jim Fallows in a post on his early positive impressions of Google+ really nails the dynamics of the above transition:

The reason I hate and mistrust Facebook is its constant record of changing the privacy terms, not saying it’s done so until it’s caught, and always setting the default in the least private and most advertiser-exploitable way.

He goes on to say,

(Yes, I realize I do not exemplify FB’s ideal demographic.)

He wasn’t, at first, but it’s exactly in pursuit of Jim’s demographic – that is to say, not college students, where Facebook already had as close to 100% market share as possible, but rather post-college-age audiences with actual incomes – that Facebook has implemented the “most advertiser-exploitable” interface changes.

How would I describe the interface of Google+ so far, then? In a word: pleasant. After getting over the “half a dozen friends” hump, there’s always plenty going on, and plenty to do, but there’s very little in the way of insistence. The interface is of course very Googley – mostly white background, black sans serif for content, blue for clickable links. Everything happens very smoothly, for which Andy Herzfeld has been getting a lot of (deserved) credit. And while it’s not at all clear what it will be or do, in the long run, for now, Google+ just works – and that’s not nothing.

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Google+ Under the Macroscope

One of the most fascinating parts about Google+ so far, from my perspective (i.e., outside looking in, not having an invite m’self, yet) is the absolute flood of commentary on the project. Following on my very early reads-and-reactions post, there’s been more discussion and commentary, just within my immediate network, than I can properly summarize. A few of the keener insights:

  • Paul Jones asks “Do Keynes’ Animal Spirits http://tinyurl.com/3l6yjon explain the jump onto G+ ?” and offers that “Skype sold at just the right time. G+ Hangout woulda caused Skype to hang it up. Hangout on lappy is very nice”
  • Zeynep Tufekci offers a key insight into the opportunity space filled by Google+ in noting “Let me clarify re:Google+. I know other such platforms exist but there is platform fatigue. Many already use gmail so it is an opportunity.”
  • Jillian York provides a comparison of community standards between Google+ and Facebook.
  • Fred Stutzman has been providing some invaluable criticism on Twitter, including noting that Google+ has “No meaningful support for pseudonymity. If you choose a pseudonym, Google updates all other services with it.” and “Can’t use without creating a public profile. Even Facebook allows you to opt out of a public profile.” Fred also delves in greater depth to the question of “What problem does Google+ solve,” and I’d like to explore that at greater length, here.
Fred offers that “Google’s definition of success, I believe, is the creation of a technology that enables the enumeration and active maintenance of each user’s weighted social network going forward,” and I agree. Seen in this light, I’d argue that Google+ is, rather than a totally new thing, merely an evolution (albeit a large leap in punctuated equilibrium) of Google’s long-term move away from being a search engine and toward being a holistic information manager. gMail was a huge step in that evolution, and with each addition of services like Calendar and Maps, Google has expanded its reach across our informational lives.
Key in this evolution has also been an understanding that any effective social software does not replace “real” life or face-to-face interaction but rather helps facilitate it. Each incremental piece of the Googlesphere has worked toward these ends, and Google+ seems positioned to continue this movement toward holistic management of social information.
Fred further makes the distinction between social networks based on social objects, latent value and those that are ego-driven, placing Google+ in the latter category. I don’t think that that’s wrong, but given the range of uses where users currently  find their value in the Googlesphere, I’d argue that Google+ will variously work as a social network based on social objects, latent value and ego-centricity for different users or for the same user at different times.
This is the opportunity of the Circles feature and implementation based on an understanding of multiply existant social networks. There do seem to be hiccups in implementing the privacy/publicity aspects of Circles and Google Profile pages, which Fred, Zeynep and Jackson Fox have been discussing. And Fred points to an excellent Farhad Manjoo piece that’s highly skeptical of the whole endeavor, but ends with this clunker: “Most people are OK with one giant, chaotic circle, and spending a lot of time worrying about the consequences of sharing your stuff there is totally square.” I don’t think that’s right, and it’s a huge overgeneralization from a position of privilege that allows anyone to say so.
But it also points to what really distinguishes Google+, which is the criticism at Twitter speed that’s accompanying the (field-test, not available to many yet) rollout. The news cycle has been accelerated, the hype machine amplified, and long-term context removed in so many aspects of contemporary discourse – especially as relates to technology – that actually allowing room for evolution seems like some far-off memory. And yet Facebook would not exist had it not evolved substantially several times since its inception, nor Twitter, nor most of the technology tools that now comprise indispensable elements of our digital lives. Google are smart folks – they knew this, but this is an important enough evolution that they needed to do it in the bright light and heat of a thousand critics blooming every second. And indeed, they have positioned themselves as not just tolerant of such criticism but wanting and needing it to perfect their product.
If this is really true – if Google has developed a promising, half-finished suite of social tools and released them to the unflinching and unsympathetic (well, partially) gaze of the online world’s macroscope, with the explicit goal of harnessing such criticism and engagement to answer real needs and problems – then that will be the truly revolutionary contribution of Google+.

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Google+ Reads and Reactions

After a lot of buildup and false starts, Google is finally rolling out (well, soft-launching) a social networking something-or-other. Obviously Google is already a serious social hub, but the various attempts at Google-as-SNS haven’t quite caught fire (unless you’re Brazilian). This is clearly worthy of some substantial attention – not just with Google being one of the 700 lb. gorillas of the Web, but as one of the few firms in a position to be able to challenge Facebook’s walled-garden Web from a running start (Google’s own vision for the future of the Web can be discussed later). In the announcement of Google+ they seem to be confronting this head-on:

+You: putting you first, all across Google
That’s the Google+ project so far: Circles, Sparks, Hangouts and mobile. We’re beginning in Field Trial, so you may find some rough edges, and the project is by invitation only. But online sharing needs a serious re-think, so it’s time we got started. There’s just one more thing—really the only thing: You.

You and over a billion others trust Google, and we don’t take this lightly. In fact we’ve focused on the user for over a decade: liberating data, working for an open Internet, and respecting people’s freedom to be who they want to be. We realize, however, that Google+ is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus—on you. That’s why we’re giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data; and more ways to let us know how we’re doing. All across Google.

This direct contrast hits on much of the criticism Facebook has received the last years on choices it has made with privacy and disclosure settings (and indeed that Google itself received for its rollout of Buzz). And Google seems to have taken some of the flak it received to heart – as Fred Stutzman notes very succinctly: “Google Circles: What Google has learned from Goffman.” Liz Heron is a bit more skeptical, noting that “Google being more private than Facebook seems like a hard sell.”

Steven Levy does a deep dive on the development of Google+ (with the totally hilarious US-centric line “aside from capturing massive market shares in Brazil and India, Orkut is now a footnote”… dude, that’s the 2nd and 4th largest countries on Earth!) and Techcrunch give a good bit of background on Google’s management of the rollout, including some insight from one of the project chiefs:

“We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward,” Gundotra says. “We think connecting with other people is a basic human need. We do it all the time in real life, but our online tools are rigid. They force us into buckets — or into being completely public,” he continues. “Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software,” is the last thing he says before diving into a demo of Google+.

I tend to agree, and this tracks nicely with much of what Paul Jones has been discussing in his (excellent and fascinating) move into #noemail. Paul notes that,

“…small talk, important small talk, is going on in a lot of different environments. It’s as common as breathing. So common that like breathing, we don’t pay serious attention to it until there’s some serious problem. But that common talk enriches our lives and deepens our engagement with our co-workers and the world.”

Which tracks very nicely with what Gundrota is saying and the critique of those buckets in #noemail.

h a personal standpoint, Google+ is exciting because it seems to more directly track how sociability works, rather than trying to corral it (as has been Facebook’s general movement over the years). From a research standpoint, it also seems to exemplify something I’ve thought for a while – that the Internet as a place is receding to the background, becoming the invisible infrastructure (think habout plumbing – and then think about how much you don’t think about it) of our lives. That is: if Google+ works, it’ll be because it isn’t so much because it’s something shiny and exciting but something simpler and easier.

Update: Further thoughts from The Real Paul Jones on Google+.

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When telephones were first invented, you didn’t just call a number and get a person on the other end: usually, first you’d talk to an operator, who would then connect you to a local loop where the desired party resided.  There were special rings within each loop to distinguish who was getting the call, but if someone else on your loop or the loop you were calling wanted to listen in, you couldn’t stop them.  This was a function of cost – it was pretty expensive to get a residential telephone line before the federal government guaranteed universal access and then deregulated the phone companies.

This was, it’s pretty well agreed, a bad system notwithstanding the excellent fodder it produced for light farce.  The residential system that replaced it was pretty problematic, too, leading as it did to:

a 70 year or so period where for some reason humans decided it was socially acceptable to ring a loud bell in someone else’s life and they were expected to come running, like dogs.

So, not the best either, even though it too did produce some great songs.

The growth of electronically-mediated and time-shifted communications may have a mixed record on a lot of issues, but it’s an unambiguous good in terms of individual control over their method, mode and timing of response to communications. I think this is a good thing. Communications where the sender is unsure of the extent of the audience, or the receiver potentially forced into confrontation, are not beneficial for either the clear conveyance of meaning or social cohesion.

Which is why Facebook’s recent actions are both troubling and perplexing.  By making all connections public for all users, they are ambiguating audience and forcing potential confrontations (between managed identities, work and personal lives, etc.) for all their users.  The shift in Facebook privacy settings takes as its central premise that the advances in telephone communications of the past century were a bad idea. It is forcing all of its users into an always-on global party line, where the conversations are transcribed and sold to all interested parties.  That’s not good.

Digital technologies allow us the ability to talk to basically whomever we want (and only them) whenever we want (and only then).  That Facebook would consider these to be bad things is deeply weird, and makes a compelling case against using it as a central mode of communication.

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