Well, not really new. Anyone with an eye on the right sites will know about Pinterest, which has been knocking around since mid-2010. However, it stuck itself seewhatIdidthere into the market late last year. And now – well, now it has 10 million unique users, apparently the quickest ever site to do so.
How did it manage this? In my opinion, because it had superb timing. Facebook Timeline, and the recent deluge of apps and API-created edges that are based around ‘self-expression’, as Pinterest calls it, are getting a certain group of people pretty used to frictionless hyper-sharing. It’s no small group, either. However, none of these apps had really been quite so effective in the way that Pinterest is. Half because they were either focusing on other or too many things, and half because Pinterest really nailed the central conceit, right down to the metaphysical name.
You’ll find plenty of people to talk about how great Pinterest is, but what’s initially fascinating is its ability to audience profile. Take a look at this:
Image credit: Techcrunch
That’s an awfully specific geo-demographic in areas not traditionally considered tech hubs. It’s also well-documented that the biggest adopters are women aged 25-44. Pinterest can take well-defined audiences like this and package them whole to advertisers, who in turn can reach those people via channels they may often be blind to, and with all the opportunities that go with digital-specific delivery. That alone wouldn’t make it special, though, nor even would the viral element that clever brands may be able to tap in to (depending on what products Pinterest is developing).
No, what I really, really like is the underlying associative patterns. Pinterest might call it self-expression, I (and many others) call it an interest graph. ReadWriteWeb had an interesting article that captured it quite well:
A social graph is a digital map that says, “This is who I know.” It may reflect people who the user knows in various ways: as family members, work colleagues, peers met at a conference, high school classmates, fellow cycling club members, friend of a friend, etc. Users send reciprocal invites to those they know, in order to map out and maintain their social ties.
An interest graph is a digital map that says, “This is what I like.” As Twitter’s CEO has remarked, if you see that I follow the San Francisco Giants on Twitter, that doesn’t tell you if I know the team’s players, but it does tell you a lot about my interest in baseball.
There are plenty of services that can tell you what their customers are interested in on their own site, such as Amazon. What is more difficult is to deliver that at scale and beyond the confines of your own digital properties. Ad networks do it by embedding cookies, which is good but imperfect. As for social networks, it’s a great unfulfilled promise. Facebook, for example, can tell you oodles about the social graph, but interests are rocky at best. Practices such as incentivized ads rapidly make user pools homogenous as everyone Likes the same things in exchange for Facebook Credits. Add to this the problems inherent in categorizing fan-made likes, having certain popular items making rankings top-heavy, and the throwaway nature of Likes in general, and soon it can become difficult to filter interests in a meaningful way. Overindexing can help, but it’s limited.
However, the Open Graph (more graphs!) may change that, as apps gain the ability to read other public app activity. One would start with Social Graph data on your customer base, gathered through Facebook Connect, and then twin it with Interest Graph data from an app that itself connects to Facebook. And there’s nothing to say that Pinterest will be the only one worth turning to: if you were a travel company, you could access public content from all those ‘where I’ve been’ apps. The self-curation element of ‘Interest Apps’, coupled with the right level of specificity, trumps Likes any day. Essentially, Facebook becomes an open information resource, fuelled by APIs and semi-automated profiling.
The question remains, of course, so what? Well, the promise of the interest graph – which is still yet to be delivered to a market that is more than ready for it – is being able to pre-emptively ascertain associative interests without any testing whatsoever. In other words, you know that x indicates a strong preference for y and z. Sure, stuff like this exists in research agencies already, but not particularly granulated and certainly not automated. It’s also siloed: analysts might pick through dozens of, say, holiday destinations, but the framework just doesn’t exist to link that information to information about, for example, clothing. It’s all inferrance and I bet it misses a hell of a lot of detail.
Couple that sort of knowledge with the Social Graph, which helps you figure out interrelationships, attribution and influences, and suddenly you’re looking at something that lets you pick any individual demographic profile and flesh it out in any direction, even the counterintuitive or improbable. This combined understanding could then be used to define media homes, comms strategies and niche demographics. And when it came to delivery, cross-referencing this knowledge with Social Graph connections and live multivariate testing would allow you to deliver content for maximum footprint across both digital and traditional channels.
A few things have happened lately in social, but two in particular are notable. I’m talking of course about #NewTwitter and Facebook Timelines. In both cases, these introductions caused a flurry of QTWTAIN journalism asking one of two versions of the posit, ‘Is X trying to be Y?’
You can sort of understand it, if you don’t bother thinking too hard. #NewTwitter’s edging towards a more socially interactive portal, exemplified by the addition of the #Discover tab and better integration of conversation histories, arguably treads ever-so-slightly on Facebook’s toes in the field of sharing and content discovery. Facebook’s Timeline, and particularly the (still new-ish) ticker, on the other hand, smack more than a little of Twitter’s micro-blogging model.
But that’s about as far as it goes. It really doesn’t take more than a moment’s thought to start differentiating the products and their respective functionality. Even Facebook’s ticker, perhaps the most obviously ‘borrowed’ feature, is clearly separate from Twitter both in terms of what it displays and how it displays it. In addition, the reason for the ticker is fundamentally different.
Nonetheless, people asked these questions. And it did get me thinking a little bit. This is what I came up with – on Twitter, natch.
Twitter wants to be a contextual broadcast service. Facebook wants to be an identity platform.
The overlap comes from the manner in which information moves through the social graph.
Cultivating and facilitating the movement of this information often has an optimal means by which to do so – ticker, push notifications, etc.
This creates ‘perpendicular competition’, wherein two entities use the same functionality to the same ends, but with different underlying objectives. In other words, they are starting from two, nonaligned points, yet converging on the same middle territory.
So in a way, this kind of competition isn’t necessarily competition. Just because a tabloid and broadsheet both use the same format of a newspaper, it doesn’t make them direct competitors. If it did, then it wouldn’t make sense for the same company to own The Sun and The Times, right?
But then, flip that point on its head. Perhaps, in social, it doesn’t make sense. Social audiences on the big networks are largely – and increasingly – homogenous. This is because social networks increasingly resemble a utility rather than a destination, in that the audience is so vast and varied that the product (moreso in Facebook’s case) must do its best to maintain universal appeal as opposed to specialist. It’s also interesting because many people, anecdotally at least, will stick with Facebook even if it’s doing stuff it doesn’t like, because the service is considered vital – just like utilities. Granted, people would still surrender their Facebook access before their gas. Well, most people.
So anyway: you have a big, generic audience. You have features that are very similar to another service: they use the same functionality to distribute broadly the same sort of content, in broadly the same sort of way. But your actual goals are different. Does this make you competitors, or not?
To answer this, I think you’d have to have a crystal ball. Because right now, the answer is definitely no. As said before, the differences in what Facebook and Twitter actually want to be are clear. However, in five years time, when social platforms spill into other services, sectors and purposes, then what? For example, what social technology is going to accompany television when that behemoth finally wakes? At the minute, Twitter is way ahead – because it’s a broadcast service, because it has the tools to accompany it (hashtags for shows, retweets etc), and because there is a huge, engaged audience. 300 Tweets vs 74 Facebook Statuses a second isn’t really comparable. Just a few days ago, Japanese masterpiece Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta absolutely slaughtered the official record, clocking in at an astounding 8,868 Tweets per second.
But then, if Facebook is adding functionality that mirrors elements of Twitter’s functionality, and those elements are the right elements, and social technology is implemented with a fundamentally Facebook view of the world and the market – that is to say, instead of just watching alongside others online, you log in to your television with your Facebook ID – then Facebook’s non-competitive product suddenly sweeps the rug from its new rival.
In other words, it really depends what people – and companies – want from social identities in the future. With their maturing grasp of how to monetize a social identity as a marketing model, I can’t help feeling that Facebook (and Google, of course) have the right approach to this in the long term, much as I love Twitter and hope it sticks around for years to come. Because if I’m a TV guy, and I have the option of integrating something that simply spices up my broadcasts, versus something that accomplishes that and gives me a plethora of incredibly valuable social data, then it seems like a no-brainer.
Who’s got two thumbs, insufferable smugness and access to Google+? This guy.
Playing around, it feels like a lot of fun. It’s a clean, smooth design. Needs some work done, but that’s what testing is for. Google do tend to take a long time about this stuff, mind: Gmail was in beta for five years.
One thing, however, strikes me right away: Now is finally the time for Google to buy Twitter.
At about 10:15am Tuesday morning, I swear I noticed a mysterious black bar spanning the top of my Google search results. It vanished on my next, half-automatic click, and was lost and gone. Now, we know what that was. Google is on the social warpath again.
It’s called Google+, and I don’t want to dedicate excessive words to how it works: there are lots of goodsources for that. I want to look at the stuff going on behind the scenes.
Google+ is made up of Circles, Huddle, Sparks, Hangouts, Upload and Mobile. To describe things loosely:
Circles is probably the most immediately interesting part of G+. It’s a drag-and-drop group creation tool that ultimately forms, let’s be candid, a potential Facebook competitor (video). It’s obviously a way more streamlined – the Chrome to Facebook’s Firefox, if you like. It also addresses one of the key problems Facebook has, which is content overdose.
Once you start going over a certain number of friends, checking your status feed can be kind of a chore. To its credit, Facebook has tried to counter this by adding both manual and automatic filters. Trouble is, manual ones are unbelievably arduous to set, even to someone like me who doesn’t recoil at submenus. As for the automatic ones, well, they’re under fire for that as well.
Circles appears to make this a pretty painless experience at both ends.The other nice thing about Circles is that, because of its ability to tightly curate your own audiences, it has more flexibility than Facebook’s occasionally all-or-nothing approach (or manually adjusting settings for each new friend) – meaning that people might be a little more open. If I can easily assign someone to content-limited feeds – a new colleague, or promising date (or both, amirite) – without yet exposing my obsessive love of [whatever], then I may be more inclined to do that.
Huddle is basically focused, ad-hoc group chat (video). It’s not a new idea, but fulfils an essential role within social communications. You only need to look at the success of BlackBerry’s BBM service, which is a chief driver of adoption, to know that this functionality is in high demand. In fact, RIM are probably going to be pretty pissed off, as their struggle to survive will not be helped by cheap Android phones taking away one of its key USPs. More on Android in a bit…
Sparks is a content discovery engine. Essentially, it learns what you like and delivers it to you (video). The main purpose of this for Google is to get people using the service – something they have previously struggled with a lot in social. It’s telling that they have a second video to demonstrate how.
Hangouts (video!) is a multi-user chat room. It’s basically Huddle with webcams. The important difference with Hangouts is that people can flag themselves as passively, uh, hanging out, and ready to chat at any point. Like being logged in to a messaging service.
Upload and mobile I want to deal with together (video and video). In a nutshell, Google is providing a full, cloud-based communications suite straight out of the box. Use Huddle to get group together, take pictures, upload them to cloud, and have them distributed on Circles. It’s a compelling sell, but then, so were Wave and Buzz. And this is where I want to talk about what Google is doing differently.
It’s all about this guy. You’ve seen the Chromebook, right? Google is making a serious play for the OS market – one that’s never quite seemed to hang together. Until now. Google+ makes sense of the cloud-based, app-driven strategy: it’s about linking up with Android devices, and Google+ is the missing piece of the puzzle.
Google is looking to build a Chrome ecosystem just as Apple built their own iOS ecosystem. You had an iMac, so you get an iPod, and then it just makes sense to get an iPhone when the decision comes, because they’re designed to work together. Thing is, Chrome has a ridiculous rate of growth in mobile: today they announced they activate 500,000 Android devices every day. That’s half a million. Every day. That’s a whole lot of Google-friendly devices, and the company is really starting to plough resource into bolstering Honeycomb for tablets and next-gen mobiles.
On the more technical side of things, Google also today rolled out a Flash-to-HTML5 converter and new webfonts and design layout. Any one of these announcements would be pretty big news; together, they signpost a glaringly obvious power play. The emphasis on clean usability takes a lot of cues from Apple (indeed, Google have an ex-Apple designer anchoring the team), and it’s clear that Google are keen to solve the problem they’ve always had with social: getting people to actually use the damn thing.
It’s worth remembering here that Google’s Eric Schmidt just got back from Cannes, where he said that results from the company’s tearjerking Superbowl ad ‘shocked’ them. Seriously? Anyway, it’s become clear that Google is now slinging a lot of investment into marketing. I mean, check out how many videos they’ve made just for this release, big though it is. Indeed, check out their second, equally something-in-my-eye advert from earlier this year, along with all the other (more offbeat) stuff they’ve been producing.
But it’s not just straight marketing. Google are clearly taking pains to actively involve their users in the product. When Wave came out, it was amazing. It still is, and it’s still way ahead of its time. But it never made sense to actually use the product; it wasn’t integrated into existing operations in any meaningful way. Google could have started off by targeting businesses, who are crying out for solid, stable multi-editing software – but they didn’t. They kicked it around halfheartedly and never put the drive behind it, assuming people like me who found it awesome would naturally pick it up. Well, I’m a person like me and I haven’t used Wave more than twice ever. With Google+, I’m already seeing how it fits in with my life.
The Life Googlyic
This is the last point I want to make. Google is positioning Google as a lifestyle. Preposterous? Not when you feature vegan baking in one of your promotional videos. Not in red-meat America. Look at those videos again: biking, ‘epic bros’, nerding out, ‘gastronauts’. There’s a guy who uses ‘like’ as, like, punctuation? And the videos link to the Arcade Fire after they finish.
Google are plucking at the strings of a relatively new social demographic: the aspirant geek. Tech-savvy, young, beautiful and hip (not to mention ripe for parody), these people are super-connected, well educated, and not overly careful with money. They’re also into fitness, clean living, doing good and trying to have the quirkiest fun under the sun. Oh, and they hate what everyone else is doing, because they were doing it years ago and it’s so orthodox now. Like San Francisco above, they mix the metropolitan with the bucolic, and to hell with the dissonance. Anyway, dissonance is cool.
Google has made the effort to reject the current framework set by Facebook. In an early Google+ posting, Zee Kane of The Next Web asks,
Interesting that Google decided to replace @ with + when you want to mention someone. e.g +Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten . Anyone know why? (specific post here)
I think I do. To use @ (even though Twitter invented it), like, or even a thumbs-up symbol, would be a tacit submission to Facebook’s reality. And that’s not what Google wants to create. It wants its own ecosystem, with its own rules, populated by Android users on Android devices using Google apps to co-ordinate their lives. It wants to be cooler than Facebook. It wants to do social in the same way that Apple wants to do… well, anything. That is to say, better. And with this more holistic, integrated approach, Google+ is already making a lot more sense than Buzz or Wave ever did.
So look out, world. Google have the talent, the team, enough money to buy a small planet, and – for the first time – the direction.
It’s a pheonemon. An icon. A film. An obsession. An ideology. A person’s name. And it just lost 7.8 million users.
That’s according to Inside Facebook, which might claim to know a thing or two about Zuckerburg’s world-changing invention. The news has caused an orgasm of navel-gazing articles on the digital society and the hubris of the service, with lots of journalists asking if this is the beginning of the end. To which the answer is no, it’s not, stop being stupid.