Michael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.
Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.
As you can see, this is the third installment of the mini-series that explores the behavioral implications of social platforms from their network properties. Since this post uses many network concepts introduced in the first two articles, I recommend reviewing them before diving into today’s topic.
Today, I will take a look at Google+ and try to understand why Google+ chose its current set of features over others. Of course this will be a little speculative, but I will try to show you the logic behind my speculation.
Google+ is like Twitter in that it requires only unidirectional consent to connect. This contributed to its rapid growth rate, reaching 25 million users within one month of the field trial period. However, unidirectional consent also makes the network noisier. To deal with the noise, Google+ has Circles that enables receiver curation. If you recall from my last post, doesn’t this starts to sound like Twitter all over again. But will Google+ turn into a glorified Twitter?
If people don’t spend the time to put their connections into the proper circles, then Google+ can certainly turn into another noisy stream.
However, even if people spend the time and categorized their connections into appropriate Circles, there is still no guarantee that receiver curation is strong enough a filtering mechanism to deal with the noise.
Google handles both of these problems well through their user experience design. To encourage the use of Circle, Google+ gamified their Circle Editor. Not only did Google made it very simple to categorize people’s connection, they also made it fun. To deal with the second problem, Circles enable an additional curation mechanism: sender curation. Google+ users can selectively share to different subsets or supersets of their connections using a combination of individuals, circles, extended circles, or public.
A couple of points about the sender curation mechanism deserve highlighting:
It is not unique to Google+. In fact, any bidirectional network (e.g. Facebook and Linkedin) will automatically inherit both sender and receiver curation mechanisms. That’s why the information tends to be more relevant on those platforms.
Its effectiveness depends on sharing behavior of the information sender. If the information senders do not curate their content and blindly share it to the public, then the sender curation mechanism would be ineffective.
Competing with a Big Sticky Network
So why did Google+ choose unidirectional consent when there is a critical dependency on the unknown (or at least uncertain) sharing behavior of their users? I can’t imagine folks at Google didn’t anticipate the noise issue after observing the noise level on Twitter, Quora, and other unidirectionally-connected network. So I speculate this is probably an effort to combat the stickiness of the Facebook platform.
Recall that highly interconnected Facebook users who could bring lots of friends to Google+ are precisely those that are least likely to switch. That is because these users would experience the greatest inconvenience (i.e. a loss of utility) on the new platform. On Google+ they wouldn’t be able to communicate with their friends until they rebuild the large network they had, and that’s going to take time. And it will take much more time if Google choose the bidirectional consent mechanism. Granted that people don’t really have to commit to a hard switch; they can be on both platforms, since both are free. But if people don’t regain their lost utility quickly, Google+ won’t be able to convert users form Facebook.
The only effective way to break a cohesive network is to magically move a huge chunk of their user base to the new network in a short time, so user only experience a short period of communication outage. And this magic is only possible on a unidirectionally-connected network. It is also plausible that Google+ is only using the unidirectional network to grow. And once a critical mass of user base is reach, they can then implement the bidirectional consent mechanism to reap the benefit of a bidirectional network.
As we’ve learned from Twitter, unidirectional networks are brittle and the connections are weak. People can quickly build and rebuild their unidirectional network easily. So if Google isn’t careful, Google+ could turn into the next bot farm, which will quickly degrade the user experience on the platform. To deal with this problem, Google enforced the real name policy, which is clearly not a wise move. They could have solved this problem through a back door method leveraging the tagging data on photos or people’s email network, which is fairly unique from one individual to the next.
Community Building on Google+
Aside from its social network, Google+ also provides a lot of community and relationship building tools. If you recall from my mini-series on Cyber-Anthropology, social networks and communities have complementary roles in the development of human relationships. Community is typically where relationships first establish, and where weak ties develop into strong ties. A social network is where these strong relationships are maintained. In the real world, these two social structures overlap.
Google+ not only made it easy for people to find content they are passionate about via Spark, selective sharing to people with the same interest is made easy with Circles. And if there is ever a need for high-bandwidth face-to-face communication, you can start a Hangout (Google+’s video group chat) with up to 10 people. These tools enable relevant groups of users to hold conversations about a common interest, which can eventually develop into real relationships. So Google+ is not only a social network, it is overlay with communities, which is how we operate in real life.
Google+ is really like a hybrid between Facebook and Twitter. It is like Twitter, because it is a unidirectionally connected network. This inevitably made the network very noisy, brittle, and an easy target as a bot hideout. However, that is what it takes to convert users from a competing network that is very big and cohesive.
Google’s initial attempts to deal with these unwanted side effects of unidirectional networks include:
Enabling both sender and receiver curation mechanisms via Circle. However, this is not as effective as the inherited sender/receiver curation mechanism on Facebook, because people have the tendency to share to public by default
Enforcing the real name policy, which didn’t work too well either
Implementing community and relationship building tools on the platform
Google+ is not perfect yet. However, given the fact that it’s only a month old, I think they did a phenomenal job. In my next post, I will line up these social platforms side by side and compare them. There is a clear winner coming out of all these, but it’s not what you would have expected, and you might even be disappointed to find out. So you’ve been warned! Come back next time for the exciting conclusion!