Features are not friends. That’s the simple message to Google+ from 40 University of Queensland students after using the system since its invite-only launch in July.
To say the service’s fortunes to date have been up and down is an understatement. Google+ is recording dramatic rollercoaster metrics.
Initial growth seemed strong: some 10 million users in about two weeks; some 25 million in less than a month.
Since coming out of invitation-only status, it hit the ludicrous growth rate of 1,269%. Now there are reports of steep drops.
Of course, both initial and current metrics are born of a very peculiar set of circumstances. Google+ comes at a time when we’ve been taught to appreciate social network services by Friendster (2002), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006).
Google’s other services already have millions of users, so the threshold to join is low given many users do not need a new username and password.
That being said, Google+ is still very much the province of the digerati, many of whom joined the service in a “Geek Flight” from Facebook both because they liked Google’s other tools and because it held out the promise of “Facebook done right”.
Powerful social media professionals such as Robert Scoble are finding Google+ offers new, compelling ways of sharing and commenting on posts. Scoble also reports Google+ has driven more traffic and more interesting comments than Twitter or Facebook.
But that kind of interest comes from using Google+ as a tool for technology professionals to engage with their international network of followers. These professionals are also interested in trying Google+ because it’s a new system. They are willing to explore the use of multiple social networking services to work out what they can and can’t do.
But what about the general population?
comUq: The Google+ Project
Fortunately, the Google+ beta launch coincided with the beginning of the university semester. I asked my students to join Google+ and comment on their experiences or the opinions of the technology press in class and in a blog: comUq: The Google+ Project.
These particular undergraduate students are the trailing end of the Millennial generation.
They are comfortable with social networking as an integral part of their everyday lives are open to technological change. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging with multiple general-purpose social networks.
The first hurdle
Google+’s short-sighted, Western-oriented real-names policy presented a many non-Western students with difficulties or dilemmas in joining the service.
Signing up under a “real” first-name and surname policy was not feasible for non-Western students with multiple names. And then there were those faced with using Westernised versions/character sets to represent their names, and then not being findable by friends.
Features are not friends
My students\’ initial interest in Google+’s features mirrored that of the technology press. The Hangout (multi-party videochat and collaboration tools) was described as potentially very useful for group work.
Sparks was of interest for finding up-to-the-minute information for assignments. But, as their experience wore on, these features were judged as being not compelling enough to overcome the problem of finding people to use the them with.
The possibility of using Circles (designed to help you organise everyone according to your real-life social connections) was considered interesting but ultimately too much work and too confusing.
Facebook friending is an easy to understand, two-way link. The one-way nature of adding people to Circles without being added back was judged as a drawback for both recreating existing friendship pairs from Facebook and especially in creating groups (since every member would have to add every other member).
The interest in limiting who saw what content also faced the tension of having to make this decision each time.
Earlier social network migrations, at least for the Millennial generation, have always involved a new service solving an existing service’s constraint on sharing.
They moved from Friendster to Myspace because Friendster restricted non-real-name profiles and methods of sharing beyond person-to-person connection. MySpace encouraged profiles of any kind and also provided a way to share music.
Facebook famously offered exclusivity to students going to one university (and, initially, status exclusivity from high school students too).
In each case, the new features of each service were important only because they afforded users a new way of sharing with a peer group.
Students appreciate the competition that Google+ offers to Facebook and Twitter, and have been interested in charting how these services are scrabbling to match Google+. That said, they see this as a reason to stick with Facebook or Twitter, not change to Google+, since the features are equalising.
For university students, social networking is about interacting with local friends, the majority of whom are on Facebook. Despite Google+’s new features, students are comfortable with Facebook as a destination for interacting with an established and growing friend set.
How much of this can be extrapolated as a means of explaining Google+ seemingly erratic fortunes?
It might not supplant Facebook as a general social network, but if it succeeds in improving real-time search, open pervasive sharing, and provides strong identity credentials, it may end up as important to everyday internet use as Google Search.