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Summary:

Many of the issues that users of Google+ are likely to be irritated by are the same kinds of problems that Twitter also faces — including the issue of noise in the stream and the discovery problem, neither of which is an easy problem to solve.

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Tech blogger Robert Scoble, the king of the early-adopter crowd, has posted some thoughts about what he likes and doesn’t like about using Google+, and some of his points hit home with me as well. And the more I thought about the new social network and the things it doesn’t do very well, the more similar it seemed to the issues that have also been dogging Twitter for some time. Like Twitter, the web giant has to figure out how to solve some pretty challenging problems — including the “noisy stream” issue, the problems of search and discovery, and, of course, how to keep people from going away and never coming back.

As more than one person (including Scoble himself) has noted, he isn’t exactly the average user of social tools. As someone with hundreds of thousands of followers, who jumps on every new web or social tool that comes along — in some cases dominating those new services to the point where they become almost unusable, as some found with FriendFeed — Scoble is definitely an “edge case.” But at the same time, that makes him a little like the canary in a coal mine: He can highlight problems that may only become obvious for others much later.

The “noisy stream” problem

In his post, he mentions a couple of things that I’ve also noticed, as someone who has used Google+ since it launched, including the fact that over time a stream of activity on the network can become noisy to the point where it’s hard to follow at all. That is especially true if one follows — or “circles” — people who produce a lot of content (like Scoble). But it’s also true if you follow someone whose content gets a lot of comments, as is the case with users such as Myspace co-founder Tom Anderson, or even Google co-founder Sergey Brin (and yes, I don’t use Circles as much as I probably should).

My stream on Friday, for example, was dominated by Brin’s photos from his trip to the Galapagos islands, each of which got hundreds of votes (or +1’s) and comments. That’s because Google+ moves posts that have more activity to the top of your stream, which is a way of highlighting newer or fresher content. But it can also become incredibly irritating when there is a lot of volume. As Scoble notes in his post:

Already for high flow users, like me, notifications are useless there and finding the good stuff, and good people, is very difficult (getting rid of people who don’t add value is also too difficult).

Twitter doesn’t have this problem in quite the same way as Google+, since it doesn’t move content around in your stream based on activity, but it has been trying to identify activity that might interest you with its new tabs — which show when people favorite or retweet your messages, and also show the activity of people you follow. The idea seems to be that this will appeal to users and keep them engaged, but it could also create a noise problem. (Facebook doesn’t have as much of a noise problem because it is a “symmetric follow” model, in which you can only friend people who agree to the relationship.)

The problem of discovery

All of this points to what might be the biggest issue for both networks, and that is the problem of discovery. In other words, how do users find people to follow and how do they find content that interests them? Highlighting content that gets lots of responses is one way, and notifying users about this is another, but both of those features can also be irritating. Google suggests users to follow based on who is in your Circles, just as Twitter suggests people you might be interested in, but these approaches are also flawed in many ways (one user complained about Google repeatedly suggesting her ex-husband).

You might think that Google, being a search company, would have great ways of searching for new topics or users or content, — or even seeing the content that you have already voted up or +1’d — but you would be wrong. You can search for specific users through the toolbar at the top of a Google+ page, but you don’t see related topics or streams or content. On your profile page, there is a tab that shows you your +1s, but it doesn’t show you the posts from Google+ that you have voted up, it only shows content that you have voted for within Google’s regular search results, which is largely useless.

This is a problem that Twitter has also struggled with, and still hasn’t really solved. The network has never really had a good way to search for either tweets or users, despite having acquired Summize two years ago, and newer enhancements to the search engine haven’t really helped. I have tried repeatedly to search for specific tweets I know exist, and found nothing — in part because Twitter’s search apparently only goes back a week. Anything else requires a dedicated engine like Topsy.

None of these are easy problems to solve. Indexing and making sense of hundreds of billions of tweets a day isn’t something that just happens overnight (and for what are probably competitive reasons, Twitter seems to have decided to do this on its own and recently cut Google off from providing real-time results). And the issue of discovery, both of users and content, is a complex one as well: too much and it becomes noise, too little and your fancy social network looks like a ghost town. And providing tools for filtering noise, like Twitter lists and Google+ Circles, is great — except that they take time, and many people are simply never going to use them properly.

As difficult as they may be, both Google+ and Twitter are going to have to figure out how to solve these kinds of problems, or their dreams of mass adoption for their social networks could remain just that — dreams.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Google Plus Tutorials

  1. The biggest problem is that none of these social networks provide complete and full autonomy, with every type of options available, to its user base. If only they provide people to organize and curate their own social interaction however they want, we might have a good chance of solving these issue.

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  2. Google sees the web as billions of pages in a book. See Churchill Club interview. But we organize data in context [past, present, prediction].
    The problem with noise is basically the same, it’s not a metric with is general true. In it’s simplest from it’s a metric in time. Attention shifts over time, even if the metric stays the same. The information value of any given article does not stay the same over time, as a metric driven approach without timing might suggest.

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  3. Hi Matthew,

    Hmm, just a thought, but maybe Twitter could just strike a deal with the US Library of Congress, which is archiving Tweets, indeed the web as a whole. Incredible as that may seem? Would this seem like a “Digital Congress” of and for the people? Compare with short leash Conservative Govt here in Canada has our Library and Archives on.

    Perhaps your readers might find the following of some interest. Btw, am mulling formalizing my response to your post on follies of FTC investigating Google a while back. cheers DW

    http://dwmw.wordpress.com/2011/04/23/media-regulation-public-memory-and-the-waybackmachine/

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  4. With regards to the noisy stream issue it has been suggested by a number of people that G+ should adopt the Facebook approach where you can choose between the automatically curated stream or a chronological option – choice is a great selling point.

    I’ve been saying for a while that genuine discovery is just as important as search when it comes to social but there is currently no satisfactory option for true discovery. Whoever gets this right will have a massive head start.

    Another issue that I was considering earlier today (http://bit.ly/mQIh8Y) is that, when compared to FB and Twitter – Plus has a mixed and confusing following/friending model.

    As a total geek I love it there but trying to explain to a casual user how, for example, you can follow someone but may never see a single update from them (depending on whether they post anything public) is a tough one – that scenario makes it hard to justify using G+ instead of Twitter for example.

    There is an unusual duality between its roles as a social network and social layer while the public/private divide could potentially isolate.

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  5. Enrique Torruella Friday, August 19, 2011

    Send Feedback

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  6. Michael Lewkowitz Friday, August 19, 2011

    Networks based on following people first will always have this problem. The cognitive load of thinking of who to share something with can’t be handled realtime in an environment where it’s a large and invisible group you’re sharing with. It’s different in a physical setting where we have the visual cues of who will hear what we’re saying. And pre-setting different groups – and worse, trying to maintain those groups – is far too intensive to scale or be sustained to result in systemic adoption as we’re seeing with circles.

    I think there might be something back in sharing to a ‘topic’ rather than sharing to people, where the people who see the posts have actually subscribed to the topic. The cognitive overload is less as there would be fewer ‘topics’ to process but the barrier switches to ‘topic’ subscription management. My bet though is that those challenges are easier to solve than the infinitely complex dynamics of our social relationships.

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  7. The answer is simple, and pleasant for everyone: Don’t be a Scoble.

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  8. I was following Sergey Brin on Google+ that was until Sergey decided to post all of his pictures. I could not stand it any more and removed him from my Circles. How many pictures of tortises does one need to see? People cull your photos before you post them. We are not relatives that you invited over to see home videos or pictures.

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  9. The noise thing is getting crazy. I don’t comment on certain people’s items becuz of it

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  10. Laura Bergells Saturday, August 20, 2011

    It’s possible that what Scoble, Anderson, Kawasaki, et.al. see as a ‘problem’ for them is actually a huge benefit for most.

    Suppose the ‘average’ user sees the futility of following outliers, and instead follows people who are truly meaningful to them. In this instance, we get closer to Dunbar’s number, and develop networks that are more personally meaningful.

    Instead of becoming a culture of celebrity, perhaps Google+ is facilitating a culture of relationships.

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  11. Google+ just needs a bit of love from a developer. Or, rather, developers.

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