Google+: The Anti-Twitter

We have all seen Google Wave and Google Buzz, and probably have concluded that Google won't be able to leverage its email-driven social graph through features.  They need to come up with thicker value and attempt to solve a problem, which neither Wave nor Buzz really did.

Enter Google+. At first glance, it looks like Google decided that the soft belly of Facebook is its rapidly diminishing context: bundling your college buddies, collagues, family and acquaintances together.  Add to that the very different usage of the platform in non-US geographies (read: primarily dating and mating), it seems very sensible to build a publishing platform to let you narrowcast content and online social interaction to carefully crafted buckets of relationships.  That's my read on Google+.

To me, this decision is very distinctive by the fact that it is exactly the opposite path of Twitter.  There must have been countless meetings at the Google Corporate Development group about Twitter.  For a while, Twitter looked like a fairly low-price ticket for Google to bolster its own social graph. However, Twitter's one-way, follow model must have not fit Google's strategy, seeing they are going in the opposite direction. Deep vs. broad.

I have not had a chance to use Google+.  I think the premise it holds out is interesting and valuable.  I do think there will be big pressure on the user experience for it to deliver its promise.  The smart grouping of relationships and the implicit extraction of context will ve critical.  I noticed that Gmail rolled out a people feature next to email messages that seems to work very well.  This is a technology challenge and that is not an area Google is weak in.

I am keen to see if Google will be able to turn its deep UX assets and talent into a seamlessly usable social sharing tool with Google+, or if it will join the list in the first sentece of this post.

UPDATE: Liz Gannes's post today is not too promising on Google's initial UX attempt.  Now I am more curious.

How Defensible is the Social Graph?

Facebook-Places-vs-Google-Places-300x225 I was about to retweet Chris Dixon's blog post on social network interoperability (@cdixon is one of the clearest thinkers at the abstract level on the connected economy), but then I decided it's probably worth a blog post.

If you read my blog, you'll know that I am a very big believer in the value of the social graph, or the identity layer of the internet.  As Chris points out, Metcalf's Law suggests that Facebook's lead here is so big that it's insurmountable by any of the aspiring players.  However, I think there's a subtle and very complex factor also in effect here.  And Chris Dixon identifies it as a potential cause to push FB into interoperability.

I think that's a very interesting idea.  However, if I were to bet, Facebook would continue to be extremely protective of its social graph data.  Why?  Because it's in its DNA.

Today, I got access to a web-based CRM-type application.  The app made me walk through a very simple wizard, and quickly got a strong sense of my social graph.  Gmail can probably do the same, just by looking at the emails Facebook has sent to me.  When you operate as a platform, even if you're trying to be protective, you are more open than you think.

So, I would like to reverse my position on Facebook's lock on the identity layer.  A truly open player (and I am not sure if Google Me is going to be that open), can strip the identity layer from Facebook (or vkontakte, QQ, etc.)  This will be a tough race, similar to the iPhone vs. Android battle we have coming up.  But in this case, open will have an even stronger advantage, thanks to Metcalfe.

Is a Single Social Graph Healthy?

Facebook-connect-intro Facebook has made a few very important announcements this week.  It is now clear that they see themselves as a part of the software backbone of the Internet, with a increasingly-dominant sign-on and authorization ability, the new, atomized "like" button, and promising ambitions in the location and payments areas.

And, as Albert Wenger points out, they have executed very well on this very ambitious path, continuing to innocate at scale.

However, there's something I find disturbing in the dominance of any one company, at the core of the internet, which itself, has so far avoided this type of dependence, maybe except in the case of google.  However, Google, in its most dominant search and advertising verticals, does not constitute a single breaking point for the internet.  Take away Google Search, and Yahoo or Microsoft have products that work almost as well.  Take away Google Ads, and… well, nothing maybe.  Probably a massive drop in traffic to many sites and a commercial problem, but the internet works just as well, perhaps better, in providing us with the utility we expect from it.

Conversely, today, nobody else has the social graph data that we now rely on Facebook to provide for us as a web service.  And now many new services are being built on this layer.

If you read this blog, you know that I find the social graph extremely valuable.  I suspect that the single company domination of the social graph is dangerous and may have a stifling effect on the development of value-added services on top of the identity layer.  The strength of the internet has so far been its openness.  Had it been a Microsoft net or an AT&T net, no matter how innovatively executed, the internet would have fallen way short of what it enables today.

What would the alternative be?  If Sun had made the move to own the social graph, it would have been more authentically open. So far, Facebook has been somewhat open, but there are commercial pressures around Facebook that will strongly motivate it to misbehave in its shepherding of the social graph.  I hope that does not happen.

PS. Albert also declares he does not believe in a single social graph.  I actually do. I think the problem he points out is one that can be solved with intelligent search/find and filtering.

Google Buzz: Email Powered Social Graph

Google_logo Buzz-lightyearHere comes my mandatory Google Buzz post.

I have been writing for a while the enormous value of the social graph that resides within email.  Finally, Google has made a very significant step to capitalize on this.  Frankly, I was expecting Yahoo to beat Google in this race, primarily since Yahoo has to do something bold at this stage and the gigantic installed base of Yahoo Mail users.  I suspect they still might but Google looks like the early bird this time around. 

Gene Volovich commented about the walled garden aspect of Gmail.  I agree with him.  However, Google is learning to be open.  In fact, anyone looking at Twitter would understand that it was its openness that led to Twitter's growth.  The only way for Buzz to fulfill its destiny is to be open.  I have no doubt Google would know this.

For me, the bottom line is, for a gmail user, the amount of social insight residing in gmail far exceeds facebook.  This may not be true for users who split up email usage for personal and professional communications.  However, Gmail usage brings habits with it and if you deal with your professonal email through the Gmail interface, the conversation threads are very natural.  And the status updats/tweets context is identical to the conversation thread. In a funny way, the Gmail model, when established, already laid the foundation for Buzz, way before Facebook statuses or Twitter.

I see Google Buzz as a very important step (and experiment)  in social communications, and a strong move by Google in the race to own the identity layer of the internet.

Twitter & Google Starting to Date?

Googtw After yesterday's announcement of Yahoo intergating wih Facebook Connect, comes the news of Google and Twitter joining forces to allow Twitter integration with Google's Friend Connect.

John Battalle reads this as "Twitter, as in Not Facebook". On the opposite side, Marshall Kirkpatrick's take on it is "just like Yahoo bowed to Facebook, Google is bowing to Twitter".

I think I have a different view of this.  Despite the timing of both transactions, they represent different strategies to me.  Yahoo's move was a bow to Facebook, in favor of its users and the utility they extract from Yahoo, but eroding a strategic advantage Yahoo may have pursued through its massive reach.

Google's move, on the other hand, is less about bowing to Twitter.  Twitter knows surprisingly little about its users, whereas Google knows a ton – thorough clickstreams, search behavior and Gmail.  In fact, I'd say Google still owns a much larger chunk of the social graph than Twitter.  What Twitter is great at is realtime and declared interests.  And it's growing super fast.

This move by Google and Twitter makes me suspect even more my prediction yesterday.  This alliance will allow Google to observe how Twitter helps its users and evaluate Twitter as a potential acquisiton target.  It will also help Google to preserve some ground against Facebook, who has now clearly become the only contender to Google for ownership of the identity layer of the internet.

Facebook Eliminates One Rival in the Race for Social Graph Ownership

Rocky_victory Today's announcement that Yahoo is integrating into Facebook Connect must have been accompanied with the sound of champagne bottles popping over at Facebook's headquarters.  It's a big victory for Facebook as it advances towards ownership of the identity layer of the internet.

To be honest, I am a bit puzzled at the early concession by Yahoo.  I am fuly convinced that by now Yahoo sees itself as a media company.  It's obvious with its concentration on content.  But, it also has an enormous amount of data on users and, through Yahoo Mail and Yahoo Groups, a nice chunk of the social graph.  And I would have expected Yahoo to try to extract some value out of that.

What's weird is that Mashable is calling this:

"…a no-brainer for Yahoo, who has been trying for years to make its services more social on its own. Now, they’ll start to see some of the benefits that smaller publishers have seen from Facebook Connect (more comments, extra traffic from Facebook, etc.) on a massive scale."

That is ridiculous.  Yahoo is not a small publisher.  It's one of the first and greatest destinations on the internet.  It's got as much traffic as Facebook and more members (500m vs Facebook's 350m).  Why is Yahoo doing this?  And isn't it ironic that the announcement is coming from Jim Stoneham, who's responsible for Yahoo communities?

Om agrees with me and sees Facebook as the big winner and Yahoo as the big loser here, and compares this move to Yahoo's deal with Google in terms of magnitude.  I think this is actually a bigger deal. In search, Yahoo lost to Google's technology.  It did not have much chance against Google.  Whereas in this case, Yahoo's still got a ton of data (groups data, mail-related social graph, hotjobs-driven professional information, flickr's social graph, etc.) to be a contender in the identity layer game.

I expect the next move from Google.  Facebook's got a lot of momentum and Google can not watch this passively. I'd predicted Twitter being bought in 2009.  It was not.  2010 maybe?

Twitter a Utility?

Bo Peabody recently had an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Times (via PEHub), titled "Twitter.Org?", where he suggested:

I launched the social networking site Tripod in 1995. By 1998, it was
the eighth-largest site on the Web. But Tripod was never a successful
business. Social networks aren't great places to advertise. You can't
charge users for their services. And they never gain enough momentum to
survive in the stock market. Indeed, no social network has ever made it
as a public company.

Instead of expecting profits that won't materialize, the
entrepreneurial community should instead operate social networks as
not-for-profit organizations. Wikipedia has grown phenomenally with a
not-for-profit business model, and while Wikipedia has its problems,
its fate is in the collective hands of its users rather than in the
hands of media companies or the stock market. Facebook and Twitter
should enjoy the same comfort.

Bo Peabody is a social media veteran and the article is a personal one.  It's explicitly rooted in his experience.  His point can be valid if you take social networks and user-generated content from a media perspective.  So I would agree with him in the case of the likes of MySpace or Bebo.

However, he points out Twitter and Facebook specifically, and there, I disagree with him.  This blog has always seen Twitter and Facebook as attempts at owning the identity layer of the internet.  Until Facebook, there was no meta data on the identites of internet users.  That's been changing rapidly over the last couple of years, and especially last year, Twitter has emerged as a contender in the identity layer – one that perhaps has a thinner layer of data on the users, but can grow even faster due to its simplicity.

I also find the notion of a not-for-profit, or utility-like, Facebook or Twitter very interesting and worthwhile. However, my reasoning would not be due to their limited profit generating ability, as proposed by Peabody, but the idea that something as powerful as the identity layer of the internet perhaps ought to be a public-domain asset, just like the internet itself.

Openness Enhances the Value of the Social Graph

Network_effect The newly enabled ability to publish to Twitter from Facebook Pages has led Nic Brisbourne of DFJ Esprit to think this may lead to an erosion of value in the owner of the social graph.  He goes on to pose the question whether eyeballs are actually more important than the ownership of the social graph.

My thinking on the issue is differs from Nic's.

Social media relies on the network effect. Over the past 15 years of the internet, we have learned that the network effect (and metcalfe's thinking) thrives in open environments.  To revisit, one only has to remember AOL.  Therefore, in the race to claim ownership of the social graph, the walls would always have to be temporary – one competitive barrier as the players tried toreach critical mass.  The more open direction Facebook has been taking lately is a critical strategic one.  It's also the only one available if it will survive, and perhaps eventually win at creating the identity layer of the internet – the social graph.

Openness will ensure the sustainability of Facebook's (or Twitters's) social graph, as it continues to enhance the value its users derive from the investment they make in maintainging their connections on Facebook.  It would be the erosion of that value, not the fact that other platforms can benefit from those users' previous efforts (establishing their connections) to provide higher utility to those users, that would threaten the value of Facebook's social graph.

Nic goes on to remark:

The upshot of all this that value doesn’t accrue to the ‘owner’ of the
social graph every time it is used and hence the value of these sites
is less about the number of registered members and more about the
amount of time people spend on them creating and consuming content.

Facebook’s acquisition of Friendfeed makes sense in this light, as does the recent rush of investor interest in companies like Tweetdeck.

The game doesn’t stop here though – to generate real value you need to make your app/site sticky and find a way to monetise. ILike and Slide’s falls from grace have shown us that.

Measuring the real value of the social graph in terms of the stickiness of a media property or its monetisation ability is limiting.  I think that we are not close to understanding the commercial value that could be extracted once the identity layer of the internet is established.

For me, the one area that seems to look more and more critical in the emergence of the social graph is in whose hands it ultimately ends up. If Facebook wins, and it remains a private (or publicly-traded) commercial entity, the profit maximization motive (especially the short-term profit focus prevalent in public equity markets) may ultimately limit the value it stands to deliver.  Imagine how incredibly limited the Internet would end up if the global system of interconnected networks it resides on belonged to the telecommunicatiosn companies (sort of like the way mobile networks have evolved).

I don't really know if the thinking within Facebook is along these lines.  So far, by resisting desperate monetization attempts or  early acquisiton offers, they hint that it may be.