Thursday, March 15, 2012

Google+'s inherent - and inherited - problem

Recently, Virginia Postrel threatened to take her business elsewhere if Facebook forced Timeline on her. Though her friends voiced support, the fact is that folks resist uprooting and re-establishing themselves on another social network without 'sufficient' cause, and Timeline is almost certainly an insufficient reason.

Google+ has been attempting to establish itself as FB's main rival. This is not an incidental effort on Google's part, but critical to its future growth. Yet despite Google's institutional muscle, the effort is a relative failure.

Various explanations have been offered for this, but I have found none of them satisfactory - until today. This piece from Nick Bilton's 'Bits' column for the NY Times, IMHO, nails it.

What do Bilton's conclusions mean for the future of Google+? Can they 'fix it'? Not really - the problem is inherent within the nature of the institution that is Google. Can 'the institution' be fixed, then? Our own history insists that broken or obsolete institutions periodically need to be 'altered or abolished'. Ask Linda Stone, sometime, about her efforts to change Microsoft's culture from the inside out.

If Google can't do it, can ANYone overtake the Facebook juggernaut? History tells us that it's not only possible, but eminently likely. It was not so long ago that AOL ruled the 'social media' scene, and thereafter it was MySpace. Both have long since fallen on hard times.

Could Google simply acquire the strongest FB competitor and win the social media wars that way? Again, the historical record speaks to us. This time it tells us that the answer is yes... and no. 'Yes', Google could certainly acquire an up-and-comer, and Yahoo once did with Flickr. Yes, start-ups need sugar daddies. But no, this strategy does not win the day for Google. Yahoo's wet-blanket corporate culture killed the spirit of innovation at Flickr, which could have evolved offshoots like, for instance, Instagram. The writing was on the wall when Flickr's founders walked away in frustration.

The real solution here lies in recalling just what it is Google really needs from Google+, which is: User information. Facebook won't give it up to Google, so Google attempted to build its own social network. And it failed - at least, it failed in terms of the scale it needs to achieve going forward. But that's not to say another emerging social network might not be able to reach an innovative accommodation with Google that gives the search giant much of what it needs without surrendering to a corporate kiss of death.

This is not just a 'possible' outcome, but a 'likely' one, and as such it's well worth keeping an eye out for.

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