Managed to get into Google+ last night and here are some very early impressions.
First, there is a lot to learn and explore. They clearly built a ton of different things and it will take folks, myself included, a while to figure it all out. It does feel a bit like they wanted to take on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook in one fell swoop, which is a tall order.
Second, it does still feel a bit rushed because stuff doesn’t hang together all that well yet. For instance, navigating from circles to the stream page and back feels almost like you are in different services. It would seem that they put a premium on getting it out there before sanding down some of these rough edges. One theory is that this is just what anyone would do with a new product - get user feedback. It could be related though to the FTC anti-trust inquiry with a desire to get it into the wild before regulators clamp down on what Google can launch.
Third, a lot of the initial rush into the service is very clearly driven by people wanting to check it out and many of the early posts reflect that. So don’t think that one can read much into that for the long term vibrancy of Google+ (or lack thereof).
As for my questions about circles from yesterday my first reactions are that this is clearly a work in progress. A lot of people don’t have pictures attached to their Google profiles which makes pulling them into circles a bit tricky at times. The more important problems are cognitive. It’s easy to understand what my friends and family circles are. But what if I create a circle called USV and so does Christina? What is the relationship between these separate circles? What if someone outside the firm establishes a USV circle?
And the point that I raised yesterday about the potential for mismatched privacy expectations seems to already be playing itself out. Apparently (I haven’t used it yet) there is a reshare feature that makes it super easy to take content and pass it along. Anything posted to any circle can as of right now be reshared to any other circle or even the general public with a single click as this FT story points out. That would seem to fly in the face of Google’s positioning circles as a way to control reach. So either they need to change that positioning or they need to clamp down on how reshare works.
I am excited on many levels to see Google release Google+. First, it was about time that Facebook faced some head on competition. If nothing else it will make Facebook better. Competition is a healthy thing. Second, I like the idea of trying a different cut on how to organize people and relationships. We have had friends and followers, groups and lists, and now we have circles (incidentally, Etsy has had circles for a while).
There are two important issues that I am really curious about when it comes to circles.
Circles is apparently a super easy drag and drop interface (despite an invite, I am not in yet so relying on the descriptions of others). Nonetheless, Google+ still separates the creation of relationships (circles) from specific services. It will be interesting to see if that’s how people want to organize relationships as opposed to picking relationships within specific services (eg people I want to share my location with on foursquare, people who I want to shop with on Etsy, etc).
Second, I am curious about what kind of privacy expectations emerge around circles. Google is promoting these with the following language (from the Google+ site):
The easiest way to share some things with college buddies, others with your parents, and almost nothing with your boss.
In other words, Google suggests that circles will allow people to share with a higher degree of control over “reach.” Since circles don’t have a “friends of friends” problem that seems reasonable at some level, but might also wind up being misleading on another. We have a fairly clear convention around one-to-one messaging (e.g., email, Twitter DM, SMS): assumed private (although a service like Bnter runs against that). The public broadcast model of Twitter and Tumblr is also easy to understand. But what should my privacy expectation be if I share something with a circle of “college buddies”?
To be clear, I am not suggesting hat Circles can’t or won’t work. Simply that those are the two issues with regard to circles that I am most curious about because they have tremendous implications for all services with a social component (meaning: all services). Now I can’t wait to actually get into Google+ so that I can experience circles for myself.
I had an opportunity to buy shares in the Pandora IPO but chose not to. If I was a super active trader and had stayed on top of it I could have made a fair bit of money as the stock popped by about 60% in early trading but closed even the first day up only about 10% from its IPO price. Yesterday, only a couple of days later, Pandora is trading below its IPO price. Today the price is down a bit more.
Why did I not jump on Pandora? There are two key reasons. First, I spent a bunch of time reading blog posts dissecting the S1. There were a couple that really caught my attention. One is a post pointing out that Pandora has no patents of their own in a field that is full of patents and where they are likely to be sued. Without patents of their own to cross license, that can become a very expensive proposition quickly. Another post that I thought was very worthwhile looked at the path for Internet radio royalty rates, which are set to rise over time. That’s a potentially big problem for Pandora as well as it means that they need to run more ads to maintain profitability which will degrade the user experience.
Speaking of user experience, while Pandora makes for good listening, the service is otherwise not very engaging and hasn’t seen much (any?) innovation in quite some time. Yes, Pandora has taste data on listeners, but I don’t think the switching costs are significant. New and innovative services such as Soundtracker (mobile + location), have a terrific out of the box playlist algorithm. Soundtracker is also more social than Pandora as users can create stations which others can discover and play. Social front and center for emerging services such as turntable.fm where multiple DJs can run a room. One or more of these may wind up creating a real network of listeners (and possibly artists as well - more on that in another post). That is likely to be much stickier than Pandora’s experience.
I am happy with my decision not to buy Pandora shares. What might change my view is if they now take their cash and public currency and buy one the emerging services and/or start adding social elements to Pandora. Neither one of these paths is assured success, but the worst case would be to see no social innovation. In the meantime, I will continue to look at upcoming IPOs and be sure to either thoroughly read the S1 myself or at least search through posts
While I have a feeling that Larry Page won’t take any of my suggestions (darn), I am happy to see him come out swinging hard. What a welcome contrast to when Jerry Yang took over as CEO at Yahoo. Several people have written that it is a bad idea to have a corporate wide bonus depending on the achievement of social goals. I happen to disagree. Social is pervasive and google is behind, so in fact everyone in the company should be thinking about how they can contribute to fixing that. It would be much harder (impossible? certainly impractical) to try to figure out ahead of time who can contribute and then just make their bonus depend on it.
But motivation only goes so far. Even the most highly motivated sprinter will not do well at the long jump. As it turns out, selection trumps motivation (at least over the relevant time scales). For years Google has been selecting in its hiring for a certain set of skills and attitudes that fit well with solving search and related problems but are somewhat antithetical to social. Robert Scoble puts this well in his post where he talks about time wasting. Another post that I forgot to save to delicious compared it to the idea of “engineering” a better party.
So how does Google solve the selection problem quickly? Through acquisition with subsequent independence. Google did this successfully with Youtube and already has one social play with Slide. One or two more bold moves here could quickly fix the problem. Just like Google did not overpay for Youtube the math on these acquisitions should not be based on their standalone economics but rather their overall strategic importance for the company (and hence not left to the corp dev department).
Occasionally I take time out from talking to startups to meet with folks from big brands. What keeps surprising me is that many of these brands don’t seem to understand the power of direct. By direct I mean any communication that is direct between the brand and existing or potential customers without requiring the use of a “medium” to carry the message. Instead, many brands treat the Internet as if it were just another medium that is similar to previous ones. The logic seems to be mostly around “I am going to shift my advertising from offline to online” with some “social” thrown in for good measure.
This type of thinking completely ignores the fact that the Internet is not at all like what came before it offline. With the exception of direct marketers (catalogs, postcards), pre-Internet everyone needed a carrier for their message. There was no way to deliver a brand’s message without embedding it in a magazine or radio segment or TV show. But today that is possible and yet brands for the most part behave as if nothing has changed. Imagine sitting at a table with three people. One is the brand, one is a potential customer and the other is an actor. Brands are behaving as if in order to talk to the customer they each time have to turn to the actor and tell the actor what to say to the customer. In real life with three people at a table that would be incredibly awkward. Well, with the Internet we are all sitting at the same table.
So what should brands be doing? For starters they should completely own their names online. For any of their products, their own site should come up top in google. Once I go to the site it should be a landing page optimized for establishing a direct permission relationship. In the extreme that could be a reason for me to provide my email address or to sign in with Twitter or Facebook. At a minimum it should be a call to follow on Twitter or Foursquare. The products themselves should carry clear calls to action to come and establish a direct contact. After all, if I am already a customer I am likely to look at the product frequently.
Why would people allow brands to speak to them directly? Well that’s where the real challenge lies. Rather than paying agencies to figure out how to shift ad dollars more or less “mechanically” online, brands need to really spend time understanding what their authentic message can be that people will voluntarily want to hear directly from the brand. These can be overarching messages and they can be messages for each product or service. But in every case they must deliver some kind of value for people to want to receive them directly. That value could be in the form of utility (alerts), pleasure (entertainment), inspiration (doing good) or most crudely and least effective in the long run dollars and cents (coupons/offers).
The beauty of this approach is that it takes care of “social” all by itself. If people voluntarily receive messages that they like, they will share those message with their friends. There is no such thing as a separate “social strategy” online. There is either a core strategy of value combined with direct communication (and social will take care of itself) or there is nothing. That is the power of direct.
So I haven’t seen “The Social Network” yet and there is a good chance I won’t get around to it at all, as I am crazy busy at the moment (and fighting off a cold). But I have read enough reviews that I have a good sense of the positions people are taking. I am a fan of much of John Hagel’s writing and thinking and so was not surprised to see him come up with an excellent review. The gist of Jon’s piece is that “old media” feels compelled to construct a negative narrative around what is happening on the web as a response to the threat that the web represents for them. John rightly references Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker about social change in the same context. I would add much of old media’s coverage of the AGs unfair fight against Craigslist to this as well.
The basic narrative of all of these is that online interactions are shallow, potentially dangerous and ultimately not beneficial to society. Leaving aside that the same could be said of the bulk of interactions in the real world (e.g., passing strangers on the street) this narrative misses two critical points. First, the spread of ideas and second, the time necessary for social change. I am reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and right in the opening chapter he contrasts how quickly Youtube spread on the web with the diffusion of HDTV. The key take away: ideas and even behaviors can spread very quickly on the web. That is an important pre-condition for social change, but the change itself will take a longer time. We see small examples so far, such as Gap’s quick reversal of it’s new logo. But it might be a while before we see some big social or political movement. This is not unlike commerce moving online. It took a while for that to become a common behavior. But now online commerce is huge and growing rapidly. Social change will be even slower but that doesn’t mean that it won’t arrive.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate criticisms of what can happen on the web. One is that the first socially impactful movement to take off might well be a radical and destructive one. The other is the idea of the digital balkans in which society becomes increasingly polarized as everyone only reads what confirms their own biases. But to take both of these threats seriously would entail admitting first that the web interactions will in fact be highly socially relevant.