Like it or Not

Dhanji R. Prasanna - July 11, 2011


There's no shortage of punditry around the future and fate of Google+, a massive social networking effort from Google. Much of it centers around competition with facebook and whether or not it will succeed in unseating the latter as the dominant social networking site.

I have a somewhat unique perspective on the matter, since I worked under the Google+ project umbrella for a good 6-8 months after Wave was canceled and know many of the engineers and product designers involved in this drama.

The argument is generally phrased along the lines of 'is Google+ a facebook killer?'. This is a somewhat contrived and sensational narrative, so let me try and explain what I think the argument is really about, in perhaps less shrill terms.

The argument is certainly about whether Google+ will succeed as a social networking product. About whether users will leave facebook for it in significant numbers, and whether this will dethrone facebook as the reigning social network monopoly. But before you hear my take, let me give you some background.

On Innovation

It might surprise you to learn that I don't find Google+ all that innovative. It hits all the notes that a facebook clone merits, and adds a few points of distinctiveness that are genuinely compelling, sure--but I don't find it all that interesting, personally. To my mind, Twitter was a far greater innovation that continues unchallenged. But broad product innovation is not exactly what they were going for, I believe.

A History of Circles

A few years ago, before the CEO cared a whit about social networking or identity, a Google User Experience researcher named Paul Adams created a slide deck called the Real Life Social Network. In a very long and well-illustrated talk, he makes the point that there is an impedence mismatch between what you share on facebook and your interactions in real life. So when you share a photo of yourself doing something crazy at a party, you don't intend for your aunt and uncle, workmates or casual acquaintances to see it. But facebook does not do a good job of making this separation. This, in essence, is what the slide deck says and his point is made with great amounts of detail and insight.

So when Google began its social effort in earnest, the powers-that-be seized upon Paul's research and came up with the Circles product. This was to be the core differentiator between Google+ (then codenamed Emerald Sea) and facebook.

As part of induction into Emerald Sea, my team got the 30-minute pitch from the Circles team. I listened politely, all the while rolling-my-eyes in secret at their seemingly implausible naivete. By then I was also growing increasingly frustrated at Google's sluggish engineering culture. I have previously described how the toolchain is not well-suited to fast, iterative development and rapid innovation. I asked the obvious question--"While I agree that Circles is a very compelling feature, this slide deck is public. Surely someone at facebook has seen it, and it won't take them long to copy it?"

I was met with a sheepish, if honest look of resignation. They knew the danger of this, but were counting on the fact that facebook wouldn't be able to change something so core to their product, at least not by the time Emerald Sea got to market.

I laughed, disbelieving. Facebook has a hacker culture, they're only a handful of engineers, and they develop with quick, adaptable tools like PHP. Especially when compared with the slow moving mammoths we were using at Google. (By that time, 200+ engineers over 3 months had produced little more than ugly, bug-ridden demos, and everyone was fretting about the sure-to-fail aggressive timeline.)

Half Circle

Sure enough, I watched as techcrunch published leak after leak of facebook going into lockdown for a secret project. Hinted at being an overhaul of their social graph, a new groups system, and many other things. On my side of the fence, engineers were increasingly frustrated. Some leaving Emerald Sea for other projects and some even leaving for facebook. I had the impression that Paul Adams was not being heard (if you're not an engineer at Google, you often aren't). Many were visibly unhappy with his slide deck having been published for all to see (soon to be released as a book). I even heard a rumor that there was an attempt to stop or delay the book's publication.

I have no idea if this last bit was true or not, but one fine day Paul Adams quit and went to facebook. I was convinced that this was the final nail in the coffin. Engineers outside Emerald Sea--a cynical bunch at the best of times--were making snide comments and writing off the project as a dismal failure before it even launched.

Then it happened--facebook finally released the product they'd been working on so secretly, their answer to Paul's thesis. The team lead at facebook even publicly tweeted a snarky jab at Google. Their product was called Facebook Groups.

I was dumbstruck. Was I reading this correctly? I quickly logged on and played with it, to see for myself. My former colleagues had started a Google Wave alumni group, and I even looked in there to see if I had misunderstood. But no--it seemed that facebook had completely missed the point. There was no change to the social graph, there was no real impetus to encourage people to map their real-life social circles on to the virtual graph, and the feature itself was a under a tab sitting somewhere off to the side.

Full Circle

Then I remembered something the Circles team lead had said:

...[We know] the danger of this, but were counting on the fact that facebook wouldn't be able to change something so core to their product.

I had originally assumed that he meant facebook would lack the agility to make the necessary technical changes, so central to their system. But I was wrong--the real point was that they would not be willing to change direction so fundamentally. And given such a large, captivated audience you could hardly blame them.

And now, Circles have launched as a central feature of Google+, with a generally positive reaction from the tech press and users alike. Wow.

Now, I'm not saying that Circles is the one killer feature to bring down facebook--not at all. What I am saying, however, is that these two products are not playing on an even field. Like Microsoft and online Office, it is incredibly difficult for facebook to make fundamental changes to their product suite to answer competitive threats. It is for this reason I feel that Google+ has a genuine shot at dethroning facebook.

A Game of Thrones

Of course, there are many other factors to consider--some more important than I've stated. For example, the Google+ sharing console is only ever a click away in any Google property via the toolbar. This is bound to keep users deeply engaged. At the same time it will probably attract anti-trust scrutiny. On the other hand, Facebook already has strong networks effects in its favor and stealing away even a quarter of its 750m users will be an arduous, multi-year campaign. And Mark Zuckerberg has time and again shown that he has the uncanny ability to make good decisions under pressure. So maybe facebook will decide at some point that it needs to pivot fundamentally and make the necessary changes.

Both companies will compete fervently for partnerships with major web properties to feature the Like or +1 buttons. And the mobile ecosystem (with Apple now getting in bed with Twitter) will have a large impact. There are so many variables at play that many of the things I've said may make no difference at all in the outcome.

With those caveats in place however, I predict that while Google+ will not usurp the throne from facebook per se, it will instead grow into a strong, competitive player and much-needed alternative. Much as Chrome has with IE. Where facebook has the larger, but no-longer dominant share. I predict that when this game is done playing, there will be no more thrones.