Chris Messina is the chap given credit for reinventing the hashtag. As regular users of social networks will appreciate, a social post without a hashtag is a bit like a cheesecake without the cake: some of the potential but will likely amount to nothing of significance. But this isn’t Chris’ only credit to fame: far from it, actually. He is also one of former lead designers of Google’s social network, Google+. He has written a blog post blasting Google for the lack of progress and loss of direction and has used the metric of application updates on iOS to demonstrate the point. His frustration appears to be that Google+ is in a constant state of playing catch up with the bigger players (Facebook, Twitter) and the lack of direction and focus will cause the service to slide into obscurity.
Firstly, there are a great many social networks across the world. The bigger players are well known – Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn, but the definition of a “social network” depends on the author. Is SnapChat a social network? Instagram? And there are more social networks springing up every week too. Many of the social networks have a mobile application or users can visit the mobile web page (woe betide a social network that bugs me to install the application at every turn of the mobile website), which helps give the service an identity and a common look and feel. Google+ manages this beautifully: the Android application retains the feel of the desktop browser application. From a simplistic perspective, if the application isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Against this, few updates gives the impression that the service isn’t being continuously improved and refined. By contrast, I have the official Twitter application installed onto my Nexus 7 tablet and this seems to receive updates every few days with little consequential advantage. The rate of change between these two applications feels about the same but Twitter receives many more update prompts. A key part of Chris’ blog is quoted below:
“If you take the long view, you’ll understand why this moment in time is important: the companies and apps that solidify their position in our lives today will likely live on far into the future. Google is one of those companies that has already done this. I believe Facebook will too. So the fundamental problem that I have with Google+ is that I just don’t understand it. And what I don’t understand makes me nervous – and should make you nervous too.”
I agree with this. Google+ exists on my device as an application that backs up my photographs and handles some communication between me and the wider audience. It’s a frequently used application on all of my devices but what makes it good is first and foremost the other people on it. I use it as an alternative to Facebook; did the world really need another Facebook service? For me it absolutely did, but for many people it does not. Chris argues that Google are squandering the opportunity of Google+ to be an online service that people will use to bind other parts of their online life together, that they’ll use because they trust the service. He says on the matter, “Why wasn’t Google+ one of Google’s famous moonshots, intended to improve personal social networking by 10x? Why did they take a conventional approach to social networking rather than think about what controls people might need in the next 5-10 years in their digital lives?”
Has Google lost its way when it comes to the social networking side of the business? Yes, I can see how Google have missed an opportunity and compared to the attention that some of their other services have been receiving, it’s lagging. But these things come in fits and starts; perhaps Google is working on a significant update to Google+? But does it really need to change? Google Communities are excellent, the application looks great as does the website and it integrates with Hangouts and YouTube beautifully, too. Let’s hope any fix doesn’t break what works well.