by Chunka Mui, The buzz is growing for Google+, including yesterday’s glowing review by David Pogue in the New York Times. The stakes are certainly high, which is why Google CEO Larry Page took the time to point out on yesterday’s earnings call that he was “super excited about the amazing response to Google+.” The ultimate test, however, will be whether the service can rival Facebook in users, dwell time and loyalty. At this point, Google+ seems poised to fail that test—primarily because of how poorly it supports groups.
Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of a mathematical formulation known as Reed’s Law. Developed in the late 1990s by former MIT professor David Reed, Reed’s Law shows that the value of social networks depends on how well they facilitate the formation of groups, not just on how they facilitate connections between individuals. (You can get a relatively painless explanation of the math behind David’s analysis of network utility at the Harvard Business Review and on David’s website, but suffice it to say that the math is solid.) Reed’s Law helps to explain why Facebook beat MySpace, as I’ve previously written. Reed’s Law also explains why Google+ will have a hard time catching Facebook.
That’s because, in spite of its visual charm and better privacy architecture, Google+ is actually pretty weak at facilitating group formation. Google+ has basked in an aura of exclusivity because access, at this point, depends on an invitation from another user. But this viral signup technique has little to do with “friends” in the Facebook sense. Willing invitees become users with no particular relationship to the person who invited them. Instead, users use Google Circles to each designate with whom they will share and whom they will follow. Information is only shared when two users’ self-defined circles overlap, i.e., I put you in one of my circles and you put me in one of yours. But this organizing capability is really more like managing Twitter feeds, as opposed to a direct attack on Facebook.
What’s missing is the concept of “shared circles” (to build on Google’s terminology), i.e., free-standing communities of interest that users can choose to join. To reach back to the Internet’s primordial consumer age, AOL chat rooms were shared circles. A Facebook group, like those of untold high school classes or familes, is a shared circle. A social app, like Farmville, Mafia Wars, or Scrabble, where we interact with other users, is a shared circle. A fan page, like those that tens of millions have joined for Katy Perry, the Simpsons, Coca Cola, and so on, is a shared circle. None of these kinds of shared circles are possible on Google+ (yet).
An example: A good friend of mine was diagnosed with leukemia early this year and underwent a bone-marrow transplant in May. He was overwhelmed with calls and emails from well-wishers. I set up a “Friends of” group on Facebook and almost 500 people (many of whom I did not know) quickly asked to join. It even drew people who joined Facebook just to belong to that group. (My friend is a popular guy.) We offer our support on the page, we share stories about him and with him, we worry together when we don’t hear from him for a while, and my friend updates us on his progress (which has been touch and go but which is currently highly promising). The page is truly a joint experience, and it seems to have been rewarding for all of us. For me, it has been my first and longest stop on Facebook for months. With Google Circles, by contrast, it would be very arduous and perhaps impossible for us to manage our individual circles to replicate that shared experience.
Shared circles, or subgroups, in David Reed’s parlance, are what drive network utility, user engagement, and dwell time. The better a social network is at facilitating subgroups, the more subgroups its users are likely to join, and, as a result, the more likely that social network will soak up users’ attention. And, since user attention is finite, social networks with the most utility will tend to overwhelmingly dominate. The most effective social networks are the ones, like Facebook, that outsource group formation to the users themselves, and to an ecosystem of third party developers.
All of these capabilities exist on Facebook (though they could be better). Almost none exist on Google+. Without them, Google+ is hamstrung in its battle to catch Facebook. It is a battle that is important for Google to fight. With deep pockets and good buzz, it’s not too late. But Google needs a primer on Reed’s Law.