In this feature war between Facebook & Google+, the consensus amongst industry followers seems to be:
Consumer is clear winner and Twitter is clear loser, everything else is still up for grabs.
Well, I’ll go out on a limb and say that I feel Twitter will be a winner too. And my explanation for that is that good old KISS principle works everywhere – in this feature-cluttered fight for social network dominance too. And in that space – for a ‘simple’ social network – there is still no competition for Twitter.
The feature battle between FB and G+ is developing them both into powerful, yet increasingly complex, properties. This is good for users like me and the people I read – we are all technologically adept, willing to trade simplicity & a little time for more powerful features and more control over what we see / read / do.
Yet, that is not what everyone wants. Many, if not most, people just want simplicity.
People like my girlfriend. Her primary network is Twitter – she loves its simplicity in her time-starved life – and the second one is Facebook – because it has an interface she’s familiar with and because that’s where most of her friends & family are, i.e. the network effect.
People like Om Malik, who wrote a short but insightful post earlier today about increasingly feeling social network fatigue and how increasing complexity was adding to it. Twitter should pick up this punch line from his post and use in all their advertisements:
I use Twitter all the time because it is simpler, easier, real-time and always on!
Most Facebook users just want to interact with family and friends. They don’t want to learn anything. They don’t want a more powerful platform. They don’t want Facebook to be more like Google+.
For these people, the increasing complexity of features and controls on Facebook is causing a dissonance.
Why Twitter wins?
Simply because for the first set of people above – like Om and my girlfriend, who are always pressed for time and attention – Twitter provides a clean, single timeline that they can read and update. No likes or +1s, no separate profiles to update, no privacy controls, no circles, groups or smart-lists for sharing, no albums, apps & games. Just one timeline – simple.
The fact that of all three social networks, it is the best integrated and easiest to use on mobile helps it even more.
My hunch is, that for these people who crave simplicity – Twitter will start taking over as their primary social network. Yes, people will still stay on Facebook, many will even join G+ – but Twitter will become their primary network, with cross-posting apps their tool to update the other networks.
And that, will be a big win for Twitter.
Twitter will never be as big and ubiquitous as Facebook already is, or G+ wants to be. Yet, it has a community that is highly involved and committed. These, time-starved individuals, looking for an online community where they can feel comfortable – will not just join it, they’ll love it and commit to it in a manner they never did to Facebook.
Also, though their numbers might be small, these are the people who advertisers value a lot – people with short attention spans but good money to spend. They also happen to be the same people who are hardest to reach through old media TV & print advertisements.
Result: an increase in the ‘quality’ of users on twitter – both from their contribution to the interactions on the network as well as their value to the advertisers. Or in other words – a win for Twitter.
So, where is Google+ in this?
Google+ is currently settling down as an open, slightly complex but feature-rich social network – something that we early adopters love for the features and controls it affords us. But this feature-rich complexity or openness isn’t going to get it the number of users it needs to establish itself as a credible competition to Facebook, or as a ‘Identity Service’.
However, G+ has the same advantage that Apple had when it killed MacOS for OS X – no heavy burden of backward compatibility, i.e. It doesn’t need to bother too much with what it’s existing users will think.
This affords Google some breathing space – to bring in features (a lot of them) and then to fine-tune them based on user response. It can resort to the type of rapid prototyping that has come to define the current web2.0 / startup2.0 scene – till it gets it right. Till the simplicity craving user, can feel welcome.
There’s another advantage for Google+: ‘Facebook’s new features’. Let me explain.
Yet, something is different this time. This time when they learn to use New Facebook, they are also learning to use Google+ too, because that’s where Facebook has borrowed bulk of its recent features from. So, what happens next time Facebook slips in the eyes of these users? They’ll have a look over the wall at that other social network, G+, and they’ll realise that this network, which was so confusing last time they checked it out, is now very very similar to FB. And, it doesn’t (so far) annoy them with crumbling privacy, new interfaces, invasive apps and what not.
In consultant speak: by heavily copying features from G+, Facebook is reducing the barriers to exit for its users. And that can only be good for G+.
And, what about Facebook?
Facebook is facing the incumbent’s dilemma in a changing market.
If it stands still or changes too slowly, the power users will move away to Google+, slowly build the cred for that network till even the middle classes start emigrating there.
If it changes too much, too fast, those valuable middle classes will suffer another phase of dissonance while the power users will still sit on the fence, playing both sides.
In both cases, a small but valuable set of users will trickle down to Twitter further strengthening the smaller but more dedicated user base of that network.
It needs to tread a fine line in feature growth and try to erect more barriers to exit for its users, and rise above petty acts like not allowing a user to take out their ‘social graph’. They only add to dissonance and can be quickly recreated once a large enough section of the user base starts ‘trying’ a new network.
So far, I haven’t seen it do any of these. Or maybe, I’m just looking at it with tinted glasses. [I quit FB in late 2008 frustrated with their privacy policies and ‘closed garden’ approach]