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Day July 1, 2011

Facebook, Google+, and the Crafting of the Global Social Network

I was one of the “lucky,” who has a friend (and ex-coworker) that works for Google, and so I got an early invite to Google Plus, their attempt to take on Facebook head-on (i.e., after Facebook has achieved dominance, as opposed to the early Orkut days).

Google+ is oddly Facebook-like. This makes sense, given that FB is well-used by people of all ages in many countries. The design and interface are battle-tested (if also trivially and endlessly changable). But there’s a key difference, and one that started me thinking about the real business that Facebook is in.

That difference is, of course, the prominence of “Circles” in Google+, and the near-absence of features in Facebook for segmenting and targeting your communications. Sure, one can create friend groups in Facebook, and then make status updates for just a friend group, but I’ll bet a lot of you either didn’t know that, or had never used it. Heck, I’ve never used it despite my expressed desire on Facebook for just such a feature. It’s nearly invisible on Facebook.

It’s central and prominent on Google+. Google wants us to *limit* and control, for ourselves, to whom we target our words and images. Twitter almost insists upon the opposite, that we speak boldly into the ether, and whomever is listening will hear, whether we know the person or not.

I’d bet that at Facebook, any feature which restricts the *volume* or *velocity* of messages that flow within the Facebook global social network are verboten, or anathema. But at the same time, Facebook positions itself as providing control and “privacy,” despite numerous well-publicized privacy issues.

Twitter largely self-organizes as a social network. Facebook, on the other hand, is *crafting* the global social network. It encourages us to accept the illusion of privacy in order to get us to friend more people, post more status, and expose our opinions and information than we would be willing to otherwise. We should not, as a result, study the Facebook social network as if it were a reflection of our real-life social networks, because the two networks are different both in topology and in weighting.

What Google+ is trying to do, and how that intent will translate into reality once it’s fully up and running, I have no idea. It is, perhaps, not entirely clear to Google themselves, since they seem to start with goals and ideas, and let data and experiment drive them toward an ultimate plan and implementation. In fact, I’ll bet the social network scientists and researchers at Google have studied the Facebook social network and its dynamics better than anybody else except Facebook’s social network scientists, and know a good deal about what makes it tick and what makes it sick.

But it’s safe to say that they’ve made a couple of bets. One is that Google is willing to accept a slightly lower velocity and average quantity of messages in the system. This is inevitable because people will restrict more highly to whom they send various status and messages if the means for doing so is prominent and core to the system’s operation. The degree to which this effect will be prominent is open to question, but the underlying inequality in rates is pretty much built in. They would make this bet if the increased loyalty they get from customers yields a better upside.

Second, they’re betting that running a more organic and self-structured social network will yield better growth than a manipulated and engineered social network. Here, I’d bet that Google analyzed growth rates from various kinds of node-addition processes, and found that Facebook is oversaturating its degree distribution and eventually will lose the desirable “near-scale-free” network properties (for propagation), and will tend toward a distribution with too many degree correlations to propagate information efficiently. That’s a complete conjecture on my part, but it’s backed by some solid science on the nature of information transfer on various network topologies.

So Google+ is starting out in a seemingly interesting direction: offering more well-integrated control over how and to whom we communicate, but with a familiar feel and design. The real question now is, will enough people come and play, so that we can figure out how well it works, what Google is *really* doing, and whether that’s good or bad for individuals.