Thursday, July 28, 2011

My Thoughts on Google+ (Part 2): Challenges

This is part 2 of my thoughts on Google+. In the last post, I discussed the innovative features in Google+ project that will likely spur other social networking sites to adapt and change. In this post, I want to touch on some challenges that Google+ has to deal with to become a viable Facebook and Twitter alternative.

There is a reason why group is missing from above;
because Google+ has no group
Absence of Group

There is no group in Google+. At least the group in the sense that we all understand from Facebook and LinkedIn.

Let me explain. When we think of a group, we think of them as clique where we share information with everyone in the group and members in the group to be able to respond to other members post. In other words, group exists as an entity. Group mailing alias, Facebook group and LinkedIn interest groups are good examples. A group gets created by members, and everyone either joins or leaves the group, shares or does not share updates in the group. Whatever update gets posted on group page is expected to be shared with everyone else in the group because group members can access the group page.

It almost sounds redundant to explain group in this way. It is because we grew so accustomed to group membership and group sharing to happen in a symmetric way. What I share in a group is visible to all other members in the group, and what everyone else shares in the group is visible to me. Group is a separate entity that people can join or leave.

Not so in Google+. In Google+ we create our own "circle" to categorize people into different buckets. But my circles won't be visible to you, your circle is not visible to me. All I know is you have categorized me somehow, but I have no idea whether you put me on your 'tech junkies' circle or 'NPR listeners' circle. Circle only exists in someone's perspective. There is no separate entity called group. I cannot join a group to share things in the group and expect to get a feedback from other members of the group.

This creates subtle but not so intuitive situation. I could be sharing updates with my 'tech junkies', but as recipient you will not have any idea of what context I am sharing them. If you receive technology news from 'tech junkies' group, you'll know that people are talking about technology.

In real life, this out-of-context sharing almost never happens. Depending on time and place, people talk about different things. We humans are automatically aware of our surroundings and know what is appropriate and what is not. When we get a message without context of group, about the only context that's available in cyber world, we don't know how to react to the message because who else received the message and in what context.

Because Google+ is not honoring this physical contextual paradigm, I see a big challenge in overcoming the lack of groups. And I'm not the only one noticing this challenge.

Missing Webpage Paradigm

A related point to absence of group is missing Webpage paradigm. There is no Wall page in Google+. You cannot visit someone else's Wall and leave a message to the user like in Facebook.

Saidur (Cy) Hossain got it right;
there is no Profile Wall in Google+
(His Google+ crash course in 49 slides is worth a view)
This is because Google+ is built on sharing messages based on your personal category called "circle". It is almost like sending group email based on your own alias, and not having a webpage to have contextual conversation.

In the world of Facebook once you visit someone's Wall page on Facebook, you are looking at everything about that user within privacy control allowed by the user. When you are on user's Wall page (aka Profile Wall), you expect to see everything about the user and the page is dedicated place for the user. From this context, you immediately know that the message that you leave on the Wall is meant for the Wall's owner. There is no question because you are posting a message on user's Wall.

In Google+, there is no such context. There is no such page. When you visit Google+ page of a user, it may look like that user's page, but in fact it doesn't provide the features that you would expect from the user's web page. Things that we come to expect such as what the user has been up to recently and leaving a message for the user are not available. To leave a message for the user in Google+, you have go back to your home page and type a message addressed to that user. This is like saying you can visit someone at his/her place, but you have to come back to your home and call them to talk about what you saw at the place. Bizarre.

This lack of webpage that represents a person creates a strange dissonance. Because there is no physical webpage to keep track of all conversations on a topic (lack of group webpage), it discourages people from sharing and commenting to a message and collaborating on a topic.

Terms of Use Enforcement

Partly because of all the hypes built by limited invite only release, Google+ is already starting to see many users who are bending and flexing the Terms. There are many thousands, if not more, business pages already created on Google+. Although Google came out and made public announcement discouraging people from creating business pages, people are already reserving the account names and getting the early start in setting up their presence in Google+. As of writing this article, Mashable and Ford, the two of early starters, already have 124,580 and 10,232 followers already (as of 7/27, it looks as though Mashable site has been shutdown by Google+).

Google+ Terms prohibits users to create account with fake identity;
Facebook and LinkedIn has similar language
It's not just business folks jumping on the early-starter bandwagon. Hackers and other anonymous users with fake identities are creating Google+ accounts as well.

Challenge with this rapid expansion and everyone joining at once is rather subtle one. Google must be thrilled to see such enthusiastic responses from user communities, but at the same time trying to monitor and control the type of early adopters to maintain the quality of content posted.

After all social network, such as Google+, gets their content from users, and only way to quality control the content is to control the type of users and identities that are created in the network.

But at the same time Google must be careful not to over-enforce the policy. With the past weekend incident over shutting down many number of accounts, including early business accounts, anonymous and fake identity accounts, it looks like Google may be swinging too far to clamp down the illegitimate usage. Challenge for Google will be to strike the balance between fast growth and maintaining the quality of content shared on the network.

Despite all the challenges, Google+ looks like it has a real shot at becoming a major social network. It has clean and innovative UI/UX elements that makes it easy for new users to interact, and very clear privacy control on what you will share with whom. It also has clear mobile and location strategy to make it a compelling solution in the future. Plus, I would not discount the fact that most of us already have tons of Google product accounts that can be integrated into Google+ Project.

One thing is clear. Now users have one more place where they can connect with people. And that is good news for anyone who wants to connect with Lady Gaga.

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