I miss the good old days. Back in the day, folks used to get mad at Facebook whenever they issued a new update. It was usually because they arbitrarily moved some random feature around, or changed something for no good reason. Lately, they’ve actually had a string of pretty great updates! The curious thing is, a significant number of those updates are almost universally a direct result of Google+.
It’s actually been a pretty amazing parade of features. Consider the landscape of Facebook updates before Google+ came on the scene. Location-aware statuses, single sign-ons, local deals, virtually all the new features were peripheral. Admittedly, few were terribly original (FourSquare, Groupon, etc.), but none related to the core of Facebook’s function: the social part of social networking. No new features relating to friend management, no new innovations in sharing.
Then, Google+ came along. Suddenly, Facebook plugs in and hammers out a barrage of updates: video chat, selective sharing, SmartLists, even the ability to follow someone without them following you back. They call it Subscriptions. All of these updates correlate directly to stand-out features that Google+ either introduced or implemented: Hangouts, Circles. Credit for Subscriptions should really go to Twitter, the most prominent example of one-way follows, however Twitter has existed for years without influencing Facebook.
This all raises a few very important questions. Chief among them: why? We’re excited about Google+, sure. And yeah, they’ve gotten quite a lot of new users. Still, Google+ is far from finished. Facebook is still more powerful in terms of features, solely on the social networking front. Not to mention those some 750 million users that Facebook has. In case you need a reminder, that’s over 10% of everyone on the planet. Not only can few websites boast a userbase even close to that size, few anything can boast having consumer bases that size. So, why is Facebook freaking out?
One could theorize that it’s potential. Google’s potential to be precise. Facebook is big. Facebook is the biggest social network there is. Google, however, is a behemoth. Synonymous with the internet. They do it all: productivity, communications, OS development. After their purchase of Motorola, they have a hand in hardware and retail. Oh yeah, and search and advertising. Facebook just does that social networking thing, for the most part. If Google adds their own not-sucky social network to the mix, they could have reason to be nervous.
It’s not just Google’s scale, though. A software giant entering an arena doesn’t mean instant death for the incumbents. Microsoft hasn’t killed iTunes with the ZunePass, Yahoo! never bested Google at search, Apple’s foray into music-based social networking with Ping didn’t raise the eyebrows of MySpace, much less Facebook and, oh yeah, this isn’t the first or even second time Google’s launched a social network. Facebook’s survived so far. The difference this time is that Google+ doesn’t suck.
Facebook is in a precarious and unstable position: being the most popular social network. Facebook is actually the best so far at maintaining that position. It’s impressive. The path to their dominance is paved with the corpses of their competitors. MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga, Bebo, Friendster, the list goes on and on. Facebook is keenly aware of this. They know the importance of staying relevant, of staying useful. Facebook got to where it is by being the best at what they do.
When Google+ came on the scene, as hard as it is to believe, they actually did what Facebook does better than Facebook. They approached the “social” problem of social networking with fresh ideas. Selective sharing and social circles weren’t features, they were ideas. They were ideas Facebook didn’t have. They were good ideas. Good ideas are the grim reaper of dominant social networks. We can whine and moan all we like about how difficult it is to migrate from one social network to another, even create startup projects to change that, but at the end of the day, we will flock by the millions to whatever social network we think is better, whatever social network we think has the best ideas.
Before I go any further, I want to point out, I don’t think Google+ is better. I like Google+ more than I like Facebook, but that’s just me. I think that some of the ideas Google+ brought have a lot of potential, but that’s just potential, not reality. At the moment, you can’t create events and invite people, one of Facebook’s most useful features. Despite the existence of Google Calendar, which I maintain should be a priority for Google+ integration (hint hint, Google). Oh, and don’t get me started on messaging. Let’s note that Google, the veritable king of online email, the most ancient form of direct and discrete messaging, is somehow incapable of sending messages between two users of their social network. Sure, we can understand not creating a redundant messaging service, but, despite requiring a Gmail address to use Google+, you can’t send messages directly to other users via email. Which leaves us with option three: creating a post and sharing it with a single user. The “message” shows up in the users feed and, if they don’t check regularly, it will be pushed down the stream. Assuming it shows up at all. Not good.
Google+ isn’t going to overthrow Facebook any time soon. It might not ever happen. That doesn’t change the fact that Facebook is scared. Facebook is scared enough to not even bother hiding the influences behind their most recent updates. They know that good ideas from competitors is bad news for themselves. Facebook is nowhere near losing now. They’re still growing, still bigger than any of their competitors by an order of magnitudes. If you want to know what’s on Facebook’s mind, though, where they’re looking for their next idea to come from, and what they’re expecting to see when they look over their shoulder while walking home at night, it’s Google+.