From destination social to dispersed social: why Google+ is the Trojan horse of the social web

I’ve been mulling Google + over for a while now. In the early days, I seemed to change my mind every few days on what was most interesting about the service. So at the very least, we can say it’s thought provoking. Perhaps more importantly, it’s slippery. Mutable. I’m not 100% clear on what it wants to be and how it wants me to behave.

At first, I thought that mutability was a flaw. Aha, I thought-there’s a lesson here on how to design a new service for rapid, mainstream adoption. Restrictions help. Simple, self-contained tasks show us what’s expected of us in a new environment. I still think that’s a worthwhile lesson but I’m confident the folks at Google need no help from me on user experience.

Having wrestled with a few of these themes, it finally occurred to me that my discomfort was caused by the fact that Google +, despite the “huh, it looks just like Facebook” carping, doesn’t behave very much like a social network at all. It doesn’t show me what’s expected. It’s nuanced and dynamic-and it’s increasingly baked into my browser and, eventually I assume, my devices.

What struck me as I pondered it was that it doesn’t matter to Google whether Google + becomes a destination social network in the way that Facebook is and MySpace was. What Google + is doing, in it’s infinitely nuanced way, is capturing the data that (I hope) will build an infinitely smarter, more intuitive and more dynamic social algorithm. Which is why I suspect the various declarations that it’s over (already) are premature.

This for me is the key philosophical tension between Facebook and Google as the battle for the social web unfolds. Facebook, philosophically, is about Destination social: drawing every on-line interaction back to Facebook-the one site to rule them all. Despite the Open Graph, Facebook Connect and the ubiquitous “like” button, the company’s primary impulse still seems to be to take the web to Facebook.

Google, philosophically, seem to me to be much more about Dispersed social-bringing social context from Google + to every interaction you have on-line. It’s the difference between bringing the web to a social networking site and bringing social context to the web.

The reason for this very different approach is in part a commercial one. As of now, the only place where Facebook can monetise the social graph is on Facebook. Google, on the other hand, have vast advertising revenues without ever needing to sell a single ad on Google + and the effortless ability to monetise smarter, more effective, more social search. Google + has no commercial need to be a destination network.

So which approach will be more effective in the long term? Instinctively, it seems to me that Dispersed social is much more in line with the long term shift away from self-contained social networks and towards a truly social web. I’ve been fascinated for some time by Jonathan McDonald’s thinking on centralised versus decentralised systems and I suspect dispersed, decentralised social networks are where we are headed if social media is to realise its true potential of being “like Air” and if today’s networks are to avoid going the way of MySpace.

Who knows which of these two Titans will most effectively deliver on this vision? Facebook are attempting to capture increasingly nuanced data about our propensity to share what with whom whereas Google, while not primarily concerned with + as a destination will nevertheless need to build a critical mass of social data. In the Slate article linked to above Farhad Manjoo observes:

“A social network isn’t a product; it’s a place. Like a bar or a club, a social network needs a critical mass of people to be successful—the more people it attracts, the more people it attracts.”

As I’ve made clear, I don’t think a social network needs to be a place-but there is no question it needs critical mass. In the place of Google + however I think the place is a means not an end.

Either way, the winner I believe will be the company that most effectively delivers a social web that is:

  1. Ubiquitous: effortlessly omnipresent in every aspect of our lives, on-line and off-line
  2. Dynamic: responsive to real time data, from location to time to pricing. Aware that groups, closeness and relevance are not fixed concepts but fluid and mutable
  3. Intuitive: innately aware of context and nuance. Intuitively aware of where and when I want particular kinds of social context
  4. Hard wired into business models: enables companies to give consumers a social stake in their success
  5. Seamlessly integrated into devices: effortlessly integrated into the desktop and mobile OS
  6. I’ve explored these five themes in a bit more detail here-let us know your thoughts: is Google + a Trojan horse or lame duck? Is Dispersed Social a genuine possibility and what does it mean for brands? How can brands manage their profile in a world where every interaction on-line (and perhaps off) comes complete with social context? It will undoubtedly be more complex and more multi-faceted than maintaining a presence in the age of destination social.


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