Saturday, July 23, 2011

Google+ and the Economy of Circles

I recently had an enlightening conversation with a brilliant friend that will remain nameless until he posts his own version of events. This friend had come across, somewhere on the internet, a page containing a list of “Twitter accounts that will follow you back, guaranteed”. As an experiment, he followed everyone on the list, and, as per the guarantee, they followed him back. Interestingly enough, however, is that he’s still racking up tons of followers, beyond those of the original list. Having more followers means you will get more followers.

Thinking about the ramifications of following what amount to dummy accounts in order to increase his follow rate, this friend pointed out that there’s no reason for him to unfollow the accounts he followed. Many of them don’t post, and those that do can be put into a list, and that list can be silenced. There’s no regulation in the Twitter TOS that says he can’t follow certain accounts (that would be counterproductive), and there’s no social stigma associated with it, as no one is likely to double-check his follow list for bots. To my friend, this seemed to be a fatal flaw in Twitter’s system—it can be easily gamed without consequence. Fortunately, Twitter is not a game. It’s a free-market economy.

In fact, Twitter is a very free economy. Because there are only the barest of regulations and developers can and do develop tools that automate and simplify actions in Twitter, users are left to rational self-interest as their only guide to navigating the economy, that is, their audience. Some, like my friend, do this, escaping from the trappings of social convention to further their clout by whatever means available. But because of this forced freedom, Twitter is a world of bubbles (as in “housing bubble”), where individual importance shifts from day to day, and where there seem to be more “experts” than regular Joes.

Compare this to Facebook—an economy with heavier restrictions, where businesses register differently than celebrities, who register differently than regular people. Where events aren’t just blipped out to the masses, they’re fully scheduled and organized. Where there’s such a thing as “like” and where it takes mutual consent to form a connection. Facebook, by its nature, abhors the expert, and embraces the commoner. Spamming is not only encouraged, but subsidized, and there’s no reason to aspire to any benchmark of social performance, unless you’re a company.

I count myself among what I imagine to be a majority of people, content with the shortcomings of both methods. We doubted the need for another major social media platform, especially after having been jilted by Diaspora. Yet there was the Goog, rolling out what at first blush was poised to be Wave 2.0. Thankfully, it wasn’t—it was an exceptionally simple design that approached the social media economy as a free market, much like Twitter. And, in fact, despite the brilliance that is the Circle system of separating one’s friends, there’s nothing yet baked into G+ that will keep it from becoming Twitter. There’s also nothing that can prevent it from becoming like Facebook. At the same time.

That’s the brilliance of Google+: giving the user the ability to change the rules. Because one can change one’s content stream like the channel on a television, users can make the service into anything they want: a Twitter clone, a Facebook clone (minus some largely unnecessary features), a mix of the two, or something else entirely. The killer app is being able to choose your audience, and thus, your economy.

A lot has been made of G+’s ability to succeed—whether it will be a functional social network on the order of Facebook and Twitter. The numerical evidence seems to indicate that that’s a big yes, but whether it will actually succeed—that is, yield an improvement for direct social media in general? That will depend on whether we, the users, learn to make it work to bridge the gaps in existing social media services. For that to happen, we need to experiment, and we need to share.

There’s a lot of upfront work that goes into building a social network, and in Facebook and Twitter, that setup seemed to be straightforward and repetitive. For Google+ users, the setup phase is ongoing, as we attempt to discover how best to format our circles and use them in a way that makes sense. Experimentation will yield functional formats on an individual level, but then each of us needs to continue to have a usability discussions with any friends willing to share, ensuring that disruptive ideas have a chance to spread through the network. I recommend a circle called “Meta” or “Google+” for that.

That’s really the unexpected joy of Google+: millions of people, working together to make something awesome.