What Google+ gets right

ImageOver the last week or so I’ve been exploring Google’s new social networking system, Google+ or, as it is affectionately known, g+. At first glance it seems like a direct clone of Facebook with some fancy user interface improvements for organizing your «circles» of contacts. There are also some nice usability improvements, like the ability to edit a comment after it has been posted. Anyone who has ever hit the submit button with a typo still in their message—ie anyone—should appreciate the value in that.

One thing caught my attention, and it’s something that Google hasn’t publicized as a feature or utility, but it has earned them some points with me. My favorite thing about g+ is that there’s no such thing as a «private message» or «direct message». If you want to send someone a message, you send an email.

It makes sense: Google is already highly invested in email, so why wouldn’t they leverage one of their core strengths? Nevertheless, it shows a willingness to be a part of the Internet ecology in a way that Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn refuse to.

What do I mean by the annoyingly buzzwordy jargon Internet ecology? Just that there is a system already in place that people are already taking advantage of that does a certain job, does it well, and doesn’t contain a single point of failure because it relies on the rest of the system to work. Some sites, especially social media sites, want to control the entire experience (so that they can serve up more ads) and reinvent the wheel with no additional or with inconsequential benefit.

The problem with isolating users from, and thereby not taking advantage of, that existing ecology (for lack of a better word) is that it takes away the advantages of using the Internet; it shrinks the World Wide Web down to a one-company-wide web. That one company is then a single point of failure. When Twitter goes down,  no one in the world can tweet. To stretch the ecology metaphor, Twitter and Facebook have built treehouses in individual trees, they have set up elaborate networks of strings and tin cans so that the people in the treehouse can talk to one another. And you have to be part of their club to play.

By contrast, email is like real telephones inside people’s real houses. Yes, you have to be a member of someone’s club. In the case of email the «club» is your Internet service provider, school, employer, or a web-based email account. A few industrious individuals run their own servers, too. In the house/phone analogy, you have to have service from a phone company, whether it’s a cellular company like AT&T or Verizon or a local company. The difference is not that individuals are dependent on service providers; the difference is that these service providers provide access to the larger network. An AT&T customer can call a Verizon customer on the phone, a person with a landline can call a person with a cellphone, and someone with a gmail account can send email to their friend with a hotmail account, or to someone with email through their employer.

I have nothing against the treehouses and their string-and-can systems. It’s fun to play in the treehouse. Sometimes it’s even useful to communicate through something like Facebook where you don’t have to give out your email address. You can play in the treehouse without telling anyone where you live.

But back to my earlier point about single points of failure, when someone’s mom says it’s time for dinner, everyone in that treehouse has to go home and no one can talk through the string-and-tin-can phones. So the more important social media becomes—and it’s become very important not just for fun but for commerce, customer service, sales lead generation and many other «grown-up» activities—the more it shouldn’t be in one person’s treehouse.

This is not a socialist argument that companies shouldn’t be profiting from things that are important. To the contrary, social media companies should profit because social media are important. They do not, however, do us or ultimately themselves any favors by trying to be the only treehouse in the world.

Social media companies, for the most part, refuse to be part of the bigger world. Someone on Twitter can’t «follow» their friends on Facebook without getting a Facebook account too. There are some bridges available, but you still need accounts on both systems. This is exactly like Verizon telling you your friends with  AT&T phones can’t call you unless they get a Verizon phone too. If that were the case, it would be worse for everyone, and the value the phone companies would be offering would be less so ultimately I think their profits would be less. As you grow up, it’s not enough to only talk to people in your treehouse.

I can see why social media companies offer to reinvent the wheel. It’s more than just serving up more pages with advertisements; it’s about control and attracting more users. If people get used to sending messages to one another via Facebook, then they will encourage others to get on Facebook so that they can send messages. In the short term, it makes sense. In the long term, it’s just an attempt to keep a bunch of grownups in the treehouse. It’s bad for the users and ultimately it’s bad for the social media companies.

There is a movement afoot to create social networks that talk to other social networks. Software projects like Friendika and Diaspora offer a Facebook-like experience where members can talk and share with people on other networks. Probably the most mature of these is Status.net, which has more in common with Twitter. My own microblogging site, status.smscotten.com, runs on the Status.net software. I am the only member of that site but I subscribe to people on dozens of other sites, and other people subscribe to me. There’s no one else in my treehouse, but I have a cellphone up here and I don’t need anyone to join my club in order to communicate with them.

Back to Google+. Google hasn’t done anything like the kind of federation that Status.net is built on. It’s still largely a treehouse. But it is a step in the right direction for two reasons. As mentioned before, they haven’t reinvented the wheel for private messaging. It’s just email. I’m sure they’d love it if everyone had gmail accounts, but Google has so far always been happy being a big email provider in the bigger world of email. This choice with g+ says that even if they build a treehouse, they won’t confiscate our cellphones on the way in.

The other thing g+ does that makes it a step in the right direction? You can put people who aren’t on g+ in your circles, so long as you have an email address for them. It’s far short of being able to subscribe to and be subscribed to by people on other sites, but if you want to share your cat pictures with a bunch of people including people that aren’t on g+, no problem. You can post to that circle and those people will receive an email.

On the one hand, yes, it increases the visibility and the potential intrusiveness of g+. No doubt soon some people will become nuisances, sending their every notice about toothbrushing and riding the bus out to countless people by email, but I don’t see that as a systemic problem any more than that one relative who forwards chain mail and stupid jokes to everyone in their address book. That one person’s behavior doesn’t mean that email is to blame.

The bigger picture is that g+ opens social media beyond the scope of the treehouse. Google knows that it’s part of a larger system and rather than fighting the system by keeping everyone in their treehouse, they are working with the system, and making their treehouse more inviting.

g+ still has its rough edges, and I look forward to the day when they open the system even further. They may not ever do so, but I hope they will. It is currently possible to subscribe to a g+ user’s public stream from a Status.net site, but that won’t be very useful until it’s possible for a g+ user to include a Status.net account in their circles. Google may never decide to do that.

But Google has done a good thing by taking this step in the right direction. If they don’t take the next step, rest assured someone will. Because in the end, people want to be out in the world, not stuck in someone else’s treehouse.