As someone who was pretty enthusiastic about the potential of Google+, I’m sad to admit that I’ve been disenchanted lately. Although I have a lot of friends who relentlessly enumerate its benefits and try to convince everyone to join, I wonder if Google+ will be able to overcome its biggest challenge: the fact that Facebook simply has a lock on the market right now. As Eli Pariser puts it in his book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You:
Lock-in is the point at which users are so invested in their technology that even if the competition might offer better services, it’s not worth making the switch…The dynamics of lock-in are described by Metcalfe’s law, a principle coined by Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet protocol that sires together computers. The law says that the usefulness of a network increases at an accelerating rate as you add each new person to it…Lock-in is the dark side of Metcalfe’s law: Facebook is useful in large part because everyone’s on it. (pp. 40-41)
Even before Google+, Pariser acknowledges the difficulties in moving people from their entrenchment with Facebook. But what makes this problem even more insurmountable is the transition. To connect with everyone, should I be posting the same content on both sites? How boring for those on both – and for me! If Google+ is just a place where I post the same stuff so that I can reach everyone – those who refuse to stay with Facebook and those who refuse to move to Google+ – it will die quickly, as it isn’t offering its users enough incentive to overcome this lock-in and the truth of Metcalfe’s law.
Meanwhile, its proponents try to point out it could be the ultimate social media – you can post “public” posts to replace Twitter or blogs, share other stuff with only friends like Facebook – all on one convenient platform! The problem with this ideal is it happened too late. I have my tweeps on Twitter who I like getting news and information from – and sharing information with. I have friends on Facebook to post personal updates about my life. I have a blog to share my more extended (even if sometimes incoherent) thoughts with “the world” – or at least the friends who read these posts and the people who stumble across them on the Internets. I’m entrenched in each of these locations, so the cost of maintenance is pretty low, especially compared to the cost of finding these audiences again on a new site. And without more incentive than “you can do the same thing all in one place,” I have little reason to move.
A more interesting rationale against consolidation may deal with self-presentation and identity online. While Parisi points out (can you tell I loved his book!) that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg thinks we should have one single identity, I agree that this is not possible – nor even desirable. I think having different social networks with different purposes mitigates that push towards a unitary and inflexible identity. I have my blog, my Facebook profile, and my Twitter feed, and while I’m always ME in these locations, the me I present still differs somewhat in tone, style, and topic. It also allows people to pick those “me’s” they are most interested in hearing from – and ignore the others. So it benefits both the producer – me – and the audience for each of these discrete social networking sites. Besides, it’s not as if anyone is banned from finding me on other networks – I even make my Twitter feed an integral part of this blog.
So despite my original enthusiasm – and despite impassioned efforts from Google+ supporters – I’m beginning to wonder if Google+ really will make it. Posts are dropping somewhat – although with their exponential growth, a relative drop is to be expected. Can Google+ break through our investment in other networks? Yes – but only if they start offering something the public can’t get anywhere else, rather than trying to provide a hybrid form of the various social media networks.
And yet…just when I consider writing Google+ off as unlikely to succeed, I’m reminded of its benefits…which I’ll post about next week.