It dawned on me last weekend that the point of Google+ isn’t to build a social platform or network, but rather to extend Google’s core mission to “organize information”. As hard as it may be to believe Google resisted the pressure to just launch a basic, reasonably successful social platform (actually they didn’t resist, see: Buzz – but it appears they learned from that experience), the core design of Google+ suggests it’s built to help people manage all the content they’re creating and discovering around the web, rather than share things and discover what other people are sharing (the way Facebook, Twitter and many other social platforms do).* Helping people organize information and content is much more important to Google than helping people be social for the sake of being social, and that probably leads to a stronger long-term strategy for a consumer product anyway. From a user’s perspective, there are two important elements to managing the personal content we create and discover around the web (photos, links, videos, ideas, etc.):
(1) Ensuring the content won’t be lost and that it’s accessible to us from anywhere
(2) Organizing the content
The first, preserving content and making it accessible from anywhere, is simple: this is what the so called “cloud” is all about. The beautiful insight Google uncovered is that the latter, organizing content, is an inherently social task. There are very few pieces of content we capture and protect, but don’t want to share with at least one other person. We certainly want to save photos, ideas, videos, links, etc., for ourselves so they’re easy to find again and revisit, but we usually want to show someone else too.
Google already helps us share content with online photo album-sharing, the gold standard of web-based email, and a solid instant messaging product. But these offerings don’t help us organize our content very well at all, they simply help us send it to our friends and family.** And Facebook doesn’t help us organize our content either – everything we share there lives in only one place: on a certain friend’s Wall, shared with a certain friend list or posted in a certain “group”. We want to manage our content simply. We want it to live in one place, so we can focus on what we want to do with it instead of worrying about moving, posting or duplicating the content itself. Google+ is that one place content can live, so we can simply decide what labels to apply to it so it’s easy to find and so the right people have access to it. This is very much the way Google already helps us manage content in Gmail and Docs – just add a label to the piece of content, and it will continue to live in the same place, one place, but be accessible from several different “folders”. Circles in Google+ is the same concept as these labels, managing where and when a piece of content is available, but not where it lives.
We’re constantly creating and discovering content all over the web, and Google has begun building a system where we can save all of it and easily do whatever it is we want to do with it (there are really just 5 options):
(1) Discard/Forget (lame stuff you don’t agree with, don’t care about or don’t like)
(2) Save (interesting stuff you’d like to store and keep thinking about)
(3) Send (interesting stuff that warrants private discussion, like personal plans, business discussions, etc.)
(4) Share (interesting stuff that relates to specific people who care about that content or type of content; inside jokes, personal memories, etc.)
(5) Broadcast (interesting stuff you want to share with the world to build your reputation, including photos, articles, videos and ideas you agree with and/or are proud of)
There are specific online platforms dedicated to helping us easily accomplish whichever of these actions we select:
#2: Save: Instapaper, Delicious, Evernote, Picasa, bookmarks
#3: Communicate: Gmail, email, IM, video-chat, MobileMe/Picasa/other of photo album-sharing services
#4: Share: Facebook, Twitter, niche social platforms
#5: Broadcast: Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger
But Google realized this is a fluid gradient rather than clear, distinct actions we choose between. They overlap each other, and Google launched a service that smoothly integrates all of these options. The result is an simple, clear way to manage all the content we generate and find online.
This well-designed content management system turns out to include most of the features we find in the social platforms we use, like Facebook and Twitter. But as Google continues building out Google+, I suspect features will continue to enable saving, communication, sharing and broadcasting. Most importantly, Google+ blurs the lines between all of these actions so we know longer think “should I email this to my friend, post it on her Facebook Wall or tweet it at her?” but instead default to posting everything to Google+ and simply selecting the appropriate people/circles to share with upon posting. After all, a Google+ post with only one person selected to “share” with is really just an email and a post shared with only your Instapaper email address is just a bookmark.***
This is the beauty of asymmetric sharing – it means we, the users, dictate exactly what we want to do with all of our content. Facebook’s symmetric connection and asymmetric follow for pages and Twitter’s asymmetric follow establish great social connections but put the content management power entirely in the hands of the consumer of the content rather than the sharer. We’ve long been waiting for a antidote to this power imbalance, and Google has implemented asymmetric sharing in a way that does exactly that. Asymmetric sharing puts the power squarely in the hands of the sharer, which allows all of us to organize and manage our content freely and effectively, all with one simple interface.
Though their current products look similar in many ways, the distinction between the Facebook’s social-first strategy and Google’s content management-first strategy is important: Facebook is focused on making social products – products that are “social by design“. Google is focused on making content management products – products that help you “organize information“. Only time will tell which which strategy will prove more successful over the long haul, but my intuition is people will always want to manage their content online but will not always (and may never again) want to be “social for the sake of being social” online.
UPDATE: This week during the Skype/Facebook announcement, Mark Zuckerberg declared that “userbase” is no longer the appropriate metric to measure the strength of a social network. Instead, he suggested the level of overall sharing and sharing per user should be used, and indicated strong growth for Facebook in both. This again shows Facebook’s commitment to focusing on making everything inherently social with their “social by design” strategy, which was also behind Facebook’s core features like photo-tagging and their advertising units. It’s a smart strategy, but my prediction is that it’s not a sustainable core mission for a company; online, people don’t want to just act “social for the sake of being social,” so our platforms should focus on doing more than that for them.
*Despite being visually similar to Facebook. Also, apologies for the terribly long sentence.
**The vocabulary here is important as we’ll see soon, because “send” often denotes private communication while “share” denotes more public sharing.
***See what happens when you put thought into the user experience first and then worry about the technology? You get all the technical innovation and functionality of Google Wave, Google Buzz (and tons of other platforms that have actually been successful) in an experience people actually want to use.