Debating the Future of Google+

Another case of death by Betamax

Recently, my Google+ account experienced a glitch and dumped a bunch of friends from my “circles.” If a similar thing had happened to my Facebook account, I would have been pilloried, but I have yet to receive one angry e-mail over the Great Google Purge of January 2012. I still haven’t added everyone back because I’ve got Facebook and Twitter accounts that require more careful attention. Google+ is doomed to wait for one of those services to fail.

I wish that weren’t the case, because I flatly prefer Google+ to Facebook. I love its clean and easily understood interface, the video “hangouts,” and its up-front privacy settings. Yet no one wants Google+, and I don’t believe anyone ever did. Even the hardcore Facebook haters abandoned Google+ after its initial splash.

Google+ is to Facebook as Sony’s doomed Betamax format was to VHS: It is more compact, more versatile and presents a clearer picture. Yet VHS trounced Betamax, because Sony’s marketing campaign, which stressed the format’s superior technical aspects, made Betamax look like a walled garden.

That’s the misconception Google must fight against and, unfortunately, it’s not rooted in the Google+ product but in Google itself. People see Google as a Sony: a company with a naked desire to lock you into using its products. Other companies have similar aims—Apple, for sure, also Facebook—but they have an advantage that Google does not: They didn’t actually get their start in the business of mining information, as Google did (benevolently). Facebook is a place to connect with friends; Google is the place you go to enter your name, hit “search” and learn what people are saying about you behind your back.

So, if you’re in my Google+ circles, please know that I appreciate you for trying something new and probably doomed. And I’ll add you back eventually, as if you care.

A better way to tie your world together

The true advantage Google+ has in the battle of the social networks is a philosophical one. It embraces the Web as a whole rather than trying to reinvent a new one, and that’s why it is poised to challenge Facebook for social-network dominance this year.

On the surface, Google+ is designed to be the social extension of Google. Sharing pivots around the +1 button that appears on all of Google’s major products. So whether you’re watching a video, reading an article or combing through search results, you’re no more than a click away from publicly recommending it. Not only that, but when you +1 you improve Google Search. It’s Google’s way of repurposing the Facebook “Like” feature, applying it to all of the Web and making the interaction useful to everyone, not just your friends.

Below the surface, Google+ is a unique way to tie together services used by more than half a billion people. Google took advantage of the reach it already had and added a connective tissue that rewards interaction through amplification. So although much has been made of the inventive way of organizing your friends in “circles” or the instant video group chatting function called “hangouts,” the true killer feature of Google+ is in the unification of the entire Web through its service.

Google+ as we know it today is an interim form. Its potential, though—to blend the world’s largest search engine with a frictionless social network—makes it tough to beat. While Facebook is busy building more strict defenses around its walled garden, Google is laying the groundwork for the largest, most open social network of all: the World Wide Web.