What is Google+? The End of Facebook.

Those who claim that Google+ will not have a major impact on Facebook’s membership are probably the same people who claimed Facebook would not have a major impact on MySpace’s membership. They were wrong. Last week MySpace was sold for $35 million, a fraction of the price that was paid for the social media site a few short years ago. The problem with MySpace was privacy–everything was public, and only a very few people want that as a feature when communicating online. Similarly, privacy features are being touted as the main differences between Google+ and Facebook.

So can Google+ spell the end of Facebook?

If Facebook fails to provide similar privacy features that Google+ is promising, I suspect it’s as good as guaranteed.

I’ve written that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a long public record of denying that privacy is a concern to users. His claim is that Facebook defines the attitudes that people have towards privacy. For example, Facebook has no mechanism built into it to allow a user to group contacts (or friends) into separate categories, such as “work contacts” or “friends”. This means that Facebook users are extremely limited in restricting the kind of access their contacts (or friends) have to the content they post online. Post a photo of yourself on Facebook and ALL of your “friends” can see it. Zuckerberg has (wrongly) claimed that since people use Facebook to post personal stuff, then they must not care about privacy–Facebook, he says, has eliminated privacy concerns.

If you ignore Zuckerberg’s claims, which I think you should, then Facebook’s major design flaw comes clearly into focus. That is, the more “friends” you have on Facebook, the less likely it is that those people are actually your “friends”. Some of them might be colleagues, or your parents, or your relatives, or your poker buddies. You might only want your poker buddies to see the picture you took at the game over the weekend–“what happens in Vegas…” But you have no way to do that given Facebook’s design.

This isn’t news to anyone who has been on Facebook and gotten a “friend request” from someone outside of their friendship circle, and I suspect everyone on Facebook has experienced that. When that request arrives, every Facebook user has to make a decision: “Am I going to start accepting these kinds of contacts and subsequently limit the kinds of information that I put on Facebook, or am I going to quietly “ignore” them and hope this doesn’t become a problem?”

Most people I know have expanded their list of Facebook “friends” beyond their circle of friends. And most of them limit the kinds of information they post as a result. Of course, some people don’t, but stories detailing their follies have become so common they no longer gain publicity. I suspect that most people either limit their friends, or limit their use of Facebook as a communication platform. Here’s a gerat video outlining some of the problems associated with large Facebook friend lists:

The upshot of all this is that Facebook has a MAJOR privacy problem built into it. It doesn’t allow people to communicate the way they want to. Facebook treats everyone like a friend when, of course, they aren’t.

Google+ has developed a “friending” strategy that seems to solve this privacy problem. Google+ users are able to place their contacts into “circles”. According to Google’s description, each circle is meant to create a communication channel with a particular group of people–colleagues in one circle, friends in another, running group in yet another, and yes, poker buddies can have their own circle too.

Circles are a great idea because they support the privacy expectations that people have when communicating with the people in their lives. It also stands to gain Google a massive market share on the social web because people will be able to use Google+ to a much greater extent when communicating online: users will no longer have to think twice about whether or not to post a particular picture or comment online. (Of course, users will ALWAYS have to be wary of privacy concerns that go along with data mining, security flaws, phishing, and so on, but if Google+ is true to its stated intentions, then at least the “flat friend list” that is such an obvious flaw in Facebook’s design will be largely avoided.)

It’s not clear that Facebook will be able to catch up to the privacy innovations that are being showcased in Google+. Despite the myth that you can just reengineer technology on the fly, technology has a funny way of becoming very inflexible if flexibility was not considered early on. The Inflexibility of their design could be a major problem for Facebook. If it takes too long (even by a few months) for Facebook to redesign their friending strategy, it could be too late. MySpace creator Tom Anderson was recently quoted as saying how hard it was to change MySpace once Facebook started catching on, and we all know what happened to MySpace.

That didn’t have to be the case. If Mark Zuckerberg had taken privacy complaints seriously early on instead of blowing them off publicly (there were many, and he brushed them all off until seriously challenged), and had he adopted a values based design approach, one that took privacy into account from the get-go, Facebook could have been a much more flexible and useful tool for communication.

Unfortunately, Facebook decided to do what MySpace did before it, largely from hubris (and a mistaken understanding of technology that sees it as the driving force behind social values), and limit the privacy features that its users were reasonably demanding. They did it time and time again.

With Google+ getting nearer on the horizon (it will roll out beyond its currently limited user base very soon), Facebook employees should be very nervous. I suspect they’re about to learn that good technology, despite its ability to modify the way people do things, must meet the value expectations of the users, and not the other way around.

Facebook users should be very excited. If Google+ delivers on the promises, we will soon be able to communicate online in ways that we have never experienced. Increased online privacy means more meaningful and trustworthy communication with a whole range of individuals, whether they are your friends, relatives, colleagues, or poker buddies.

(Note: There is a footnote to this story, and it has to do with Diaspora, an open-source project that was started in response to Facebook users’ privacy demands. Diaspora is being designed with the kinds of features that Google+ seems to incorporate. Given the relatively unlikely chance that a small startup will be able to kill a Google product just by having similar features, this story is also about the end of Diaspora. Therefore, R.I.P. Diaspora.)

Update: Read my first privacy impressions of Google+ Circles.


3 thoughts on “What is Google+? The End of Facebook.

  1. That's really interesting, and thanks for reading. Google+ will definitely have its growing pains. The Picassa issue is an interesting one and sounds a bit like Facebook's face recognition problem. However, it does also seem to differ in that Circles help to define who gets to view albums (unless I'm reading things incorrectly). It's interesting that you point out the need for Google to inform all of its Picassa users of the changes to the functionality of Picassa. That's another mistake Facebook made that resulted in this whole mess they're in right now.

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