Blog Post

Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget

Google (s goog) CEO Eric Schmidt made some comments last week about the company’s plans to get more social, and more than anything else they showed how little the web giant really understands what it is up against. During a brief discussion with reporters following the company’s Zeitgeist conference, Schmidt said that Google wasn’t planning to launch a major standalone social venture, but instead intended to “add a social component” to its existing products and services. When I read those remarks, an alarm bell went off in my head.

Why? Because to truly be successful, social media or social networking — which Google has apparently come to realize is an important feature of the web as it exists today, and a competitive threat as well (sub req’d) — can’t just be bolted onto what you are already doing. It’s not a software upgrade or a hardware fix. Schmidt makes adding social features sound like something Google can accomplish by tweaking an algorithm here and there, or adding a new widget (possibly even a Facebook plugin). But he is wrong.

Adding “a social component” to an existing service is exactly what Google Buzz was supposed to do with Gmail. It stumbled out of the gate for a number of reasons, including the fact that it auto-added all your mail contacts as friends without telling you, and has been more or less limping along ever since. Google’s OpenSocial and Google Friend Connect were also supposed to add a social layer to existing services — not to mention Google Wave (which has been shut down) and Orkut. They have all fizzled, while every day Facebook gets larger and more powerful.

As Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures described in a recent post, what matters in terms of social services and features is catering to a user’s specific intent — something Twitter does very well. Amorphous social “layers” that aggregate activity from elsewhere (like Friendfeed) don’t have anywhere near that kind of success. And the only intent that Google understands is search, in which the biggest measure of success is how quickly you send people away. It’s the difference between pandas and lobsters, as Adam Rifkin described it earlier this year, and it is Google’s Achilles heel.

Has Facebook added a social layer to its existing business? No. Being a social network *is* its business. The company was designed from the ground up to be a social network and to have social features — they weren’t bolted on after the fact. Being social is in its DNA, which is why it has been succesful. Facebook is taking a vast social enterprise and adding monetization features, while Google is trying to take a vast business built on something else and somehow make it social. As Om and others have noted, social just isn’t something the company understands very well, period. Too many engineers? Who knows.

Vic Gundotra and Max Levchin of Slide (which Google acquired) are supposed to be helping with that, and I wish them the best of luck: trying to splice the company’s DNA is going to be a Herculean task, along the lines of teaching a robot how to be funny, or explaining to a computer why human beings drink too much and then fall down. Above all else, Gundotra and Levchin should tell their CEO that being social involves a heck of a lot more than “adding a social component” to existing services. Google has to somehow figure out how to actually become social, not just to pretend that it is.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Why Google Should Fear the Social Web

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson

47 Responses to “Memo to Eric Schmidt: Being Social is Not a Widget”

  1. Having watched “Surrogates” last night for the first time, I thought you could easily swap out those robots for social media. That’s the danger if social media’s not used properly. Google’s vision of “being social” isn’t helping either.

  2. Great read.

    It’s funny. Mr. Schmidt undermines, or underestimates, what it means to be social…and Kevin Thau (of Twitter) doesn’t understand what it actually means to be social.

    It’s ironic that people at the top of such web/digital/social media giants don’t comprehend what their platforms are about, or have the potential to be. Go figure.

  3. Matthew, you have offered no point of view as to how Google should approach the problem. I believe that a robust integration throughout all their products is what they have in mind. You may be able to describe it as a bolted-on social component, but it won’t feel that way. It would pull in your preferences and networks and content from all of Google, and anywhere else it can be pulled from, and it will be accessible through your Google account on any Google service. You can already see shades of this with the integration that Google has done on YouTube. It will take time, but I think that the amount of touchpoints that Google has will slowly drive adoption of this network, and then the network effects will kick in.

  4. I think we should reserve judgement until Google releases, or shows us something to comment upon. Facebook is effectively a set of applications with an underlying common messaging and authentication infrastructure. So, by definition, Facebook also is a set of disparate applications (photos, inbox, chat) that is connected by a social layer. The trick for google will be to make sure that this social layer is coherent and consistent across major experiences (youtube, gmail, etc). I for one think that, at a high level, this strategy makes sense as part of a larger strategy in social. That said, the devil is in the details and execution will be – at the end of the day – all that matters.

    • Hooman

      Facebook was built with social graph and then bolted on different apps to leverage that graph and authentication infrastructure. I think Google is approaching it from the opposite angle. That is where the two companies are different. No-one argues that Google’s “strategy” makes logical sense, but as you said, the devil is in the details and that is where Google falters. It has been for a bit. I am not sure why it would be any different.

  5. dissertations5

    Indeed, each business applies social media promoting strategies, so Google should go for it as well. Also, I may be missing something, but they haven’t released their “FB killer” yet, have they? I must admit I am a google fan but even not being one it would be reasonable to suggest that something a huge and succesful corporation has been working on thoroughly is more than a couple of algorythms. Can’t predict anything for now except for the number of new facebook members coming down slowly (why? most of the target audience already has an account with them and it’s no longer a boom due to a number of competitors, and already existant semi positive/semi negative image), but hopefully Google Me will be a breath of fresh air in social networks area.

  6. Arnold Waldstein

    Matthew…good post.

    I’ve ran into this on Fred Wilson’s post the other day and it has stuck with me.

    Companies, especially in the ecommerce space add social layers to their businesses all the time to create a ‘place’ for community. That is the intent and at it best, works.

    I agree wholehearted with you and Fred that ‘Social intent’ as the guiding goal is necessary for a platform to succeed. And Google, as smart as they are, just don’t understand that and don’t understand social it appears.

    Thanks for continuing this discussion.

    BTW..I’m always trying to sort out the intersection of the social web and life and the social web and ebusiness on my blog @

  7. The criticism of Google rests in part on how immutable social behaviors are, and to what extent the individual addressability opportunity has been secured by Facebook, Foursquare, etc.

    I buy the notion that Twitter is more of an information utility than it is a social network. Further, as technology has become part of the social zeitgeist I argue that innovation will increasingly look like the episodic television development model. Just as audiences couldn’t imagine television without “I Love Lucy”, so too do modern audiences view Facebook as a permanent fixture in the social media landscape. The key will be an enterprise’s ability to obsolete its own product and adapt to the changing needs of a social audience.

  8. The sheer amount of Facebook subscribers is saying nothing about its real life importance for business. Google is a business company and people are using Google services for business. Facebook is for private life, entertainment and all the people who need to waste time with pseudo activities. And for sure there is some overlapping. Therefore the concept of Google is absolutely right. In the world of today nobody can be everywhere the leader. Something Microsoft is learning currently painfully. I have a Facebook account since an eternity, but how I can do REAL business there? Looking to XING or LinkedIn is already a different story. Facebook and Google will coexist and Google can’t develop a real competing service to Facebook and Facebook can’t replace Google.

  9. Orkut isn’t a failure. It just isn’t big in the US. But it is huge in Brazil. That’s no small country. They have a population of 200 million.

    It is hard to say what Google could do to have better success being social. One thing is certain. Facebook owns the social graph and it will be extremely difficult to knock them from that position.

  10. function social{/*code by Eric Schidt */;
    using human_being{ data=array(everything_known);
    var blah=”whatever”;
    switch(whim) {
    case 1: return blah; break;
    case 2: return blah; break;

    default: return blah; break;
    } } }

  11. I believe “add a social component” will equate to new support for logging system and application activity stream events by each of Google’s services, enabling third party services/apps/widgets to consume and visualize these events as well as enabling the addition of new events and meta data to activity streams by these consumers. OpenSocial provides a good framework for filtering these events by leveraging social contexts.

  12. Google Me I think is rename of Buzz, with added real-time collaboration features from Wave and layers of Social on top of Android, Youtube, Search, Maps and every other Google products. Google will extract most of Facebook’s social graph into (compatible with Open Social) through new Browser extensions, add-ons and toolbars.

      • Okay, it is true that inferring from even a stellar analysis of social media from a single researcher doesn’t exactly instill confidence at the organizational level. However, I just don’t buy the alternative message either, especially when it is mixed (e.g., can’t succeed at “social” by adding a component, unless it is Ping) and frankly, when the implicit underlying message not infrequently comes across unabashedly pro-one company.

        Besides, any analysis that ~writes off Google on an endeavor acknowledged to be a big deal —whatever the topic— simply doesn’t resonate with me. This isn’t The Gentleman’s game, but if it were, Google could just buy themselves a professional team if they need to (or, dare I suggest, buy some “no balls”).

        If anything Google’s often dismal track record of failing to integrating it’s own services makes this recent focus on integration instill confidence. Ultimately, I remain tentatively encouraged.

  13. It’s Sunday, mid-day, and my brain is exhausted from watching a surfeit of proper football from England, Spain, Italy and Germany. So, I shan’t attempt detail or even an explanation.

    You don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Sorry to be abrupt.

  14. Schmidt is cracked, but not for the reasons you put forth. There are countless examples of “successful” products that were built as widgets or features of some other platform. Are you seriously positing that Zynga isn’t “successful”?

      • Your assertion was that “social can’t just be bolted onto what you are already doing”. But clearly this happens all the time. It sounds like you’re trying to make a generalization here. Zynga/Facebook disproves this. What is the difference between what you refer to as a “widget” and a Facebook app anyway?