Google+ the Facebook Killer?

I use Facebook. I didn’t use Myspace. I will use Google Plus.

But why? And why might everyone else?

Social networks are tricky beasts. They’re odd mixtures of circumstance, brand image, psychology, and technological features – in that order. But what makes them “win”?

[note – this is my interpretation. It may be wrong, but it hopefully is interesting. Feel free to correct me]

Let’s start with GeoCities. I grew up and got online in 1998, just as Geocities was getting big, and you couldn’t search Yahoo or AltaVista without running into someone’s page. You could find everything on Geocities – Star Trek or Simpsons fansites, to timely and frequently-updated personal opinions (the first blogs?) and anything else. Really, it was nothing special – a URL at which you could put your own content. This was immensely powerful, even to the 7-year-old me. I must confess that I never had a GeoCities page, but I understood that the ability to publish ones own websites that could be seen anywhere was a big deal, in a world that required fancy equipment to even have an uninterrupted internet connection at all.

But what does this have with social networks? Well, real names were irrelevant – even if they were provided, they weren’t important. People would bookmark interesting pages and check back occasionally – this was before RSS, of course. I maintain, however, that social networks are at least as much about content as people. People use their Facebook account to post photos and videos to the world, as much as they use it to keep up with friends. Geocities was the first – with your few megabytes of space, you could share your thoughts and MIDI files and favorite animated GIFs with anybody who could find you.

This was nice, but not person-centric. Geocities pages weren’t often about people – they were much more likely to be focused on a particular subject. As they should have been – that was the point of the service. But as Internet access became more available, faster, and consistent, people wanted to move more of their lives onto it. Enter Myspace, where your user name led to a page about you – and a list of your friends. This, of course, was the novelty; you could not only read somebody’s page, but the pages of people they knew. This was all possible with Geocities, but more curated. Every user has friends, and Myspace showed you in a standard form.

But Myspace was even worse than Geocities, as far as the pages themselves. You had to understand how web pages worked to use Geocities, even just a little bit, and its users tended to be older. But Myspace made it too easy to customize your page, and its users enthusiastically screwed it up. Broken, garish layouts with not one, but two or three auto-starting MIDIs and hundreds of animated gifs – this was Myspace. The page’s owner had to organize it – apparently above the level of the thirteen year olds who were the biggest culprits. If basic user information was included at all, you’d need to wade through mountains of copy-paste Javascript, broken layouts, and flashy GIFs that would crash your browser or give you a seizure before you could find it.

Enter Facebook, which takes the good of Myspace (the friends concept) and further curates it. Every user has a real, proper name, and a friends list. People flocked to Facebook because it was exclusive (at first), but also because it was… quiet. No flashy GIFs, just a standard layout and color scheme. Pages were about real people, and contained selected content (wall posts and photos) by real people, but they weren’t designed by those people – people with a demonstrated propensity to screw it up. No, Facebook let the user fill in the fields with the correct info, and it took care of the rest. And this was a very good thing. People could finally use the Web for “social networking” – that nebulous concept where you map out your real-life (or not) acquaintances into virtual space, and continue them there. The novelty of Facebook was that you actually could interact with people in a standard form, despite their best efforts! Facebook was absolutely more limited than Myspace, but flexible enough that it could be used and standard enough that it would be used.

So – if you accept my premise, then Facebook has a flaw that its victorious competitor will address. What might that be? Everybody hates the noisy apps (Farmville) that fill up the news feed – maybe Google will be quieter? Privacy, perhaps – Google Circles allows you to have essentially separate friends lists, and curate the interaction between them – as people do between their bachelor pad, their relatives, and their workplace. This is my pick. For all the talk of how “privacy is dead”, I think people still need it and the ability to limit what they share. All those drunk-at-party photos that Facebook users insist on posting can be restricted to people who were actually there, or just your close friends and not your parents or boss.

Facebook is built on sharing – will Google+ be built on restrictions? We’ll see. But in my mind, the death of Facebook is inevitable – the only question is who, and why.

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