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Hey Google — being social is not an engineering problem

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In the wake of Google’s launch of Google+, there have been some interesting comments made by a number of former Google staffers — including Paul Adams, the guy primarily responsible for the insight behind “Circles,” one of the key features of Google+ — that indicate the company still sees social networking as fundamentally an engineering problem. While it’s nice that the web giant is paying attention to social behavior at all, can it ever really understand social networks if it only sees them as sources of information for its search algorithms?

Adams, who quit Google to join Facebook just before Google+ was rolled out, has apparently read so many falsehoods and misinterpretations of his departure that he felt compelled to write a blog post correcting the record. Among other things, he describes how Google is blocking the publication of a book he wrote about the thinking behind Circles — which he originally put into a PowerPoint (s msft) presentation that was widely circulated on Slideshare and elsewhere last year. It isn’t clear why the company doesn’t want Adams to publish the book, which was written with Google’s approval.

Engineering is everything

But what was most interesting to me about Adams’ description of his time at Google was how little attention the company paid to his theories about social networks and how to organize them, which became the fundamental underpinnings of Google+, and arguably the core of whatever competitive advantage the network might have against Facebook and Twitter — neither of which are particularly good at implementing the kind of filtering that Circles allows (although whether enough users really want to make use of these tools remains to be seen). Adams says in his post:

Google is an engineering company, and as a researcher or designer, it’s very difficult to have your voice heard at a strategic level. Ultimately I felt that although my research formed a cornerstone of the Google social strategy, and I had correctly predicted how other products in the market would play out, I wasn’t being listened to when it came to executing that strategy. My peers listened intently, but persuading the leadership was a losing battle. Google values technology, not social science.

You could argue that Adams is just another disgruntled employee who feels he didn’t get enough attention from the boss, but his description of Google’s culture fits perfectly with that described by author Steven Levy in his recent book In The Plex, which is based on years of interviews with Google staffers and executives. As Levy describes over and over again, no argument or business case or venture gets very far in Google unless it is backed up by data, and if it doesn’t have an engineer promoting it, at some point it will almost inevitably fail. This is arguably a fundamental part of why being social simply isn’t in Google’s DNA, as we have pointed out a number of times.

It’s all about the data

Meanwhile, Google’s employee number 59 — Doug Edwards, who was involved in the development of Gmail and some of the company’s other leading features — has also been talking about the company and its culture, in part because he has a book out about it called “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (s nws), the former Googler talks about the company’s attempts at launching social features, and what they are driven by, and his comments about the motivation behind Google+ is very revealing:

[I]t’s not because they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction and they think oh, this would be a really wonderful way to bring our friends together and build a social circle. They look at it and say, “the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable. If we don’t have access to that information, Google will be less valuable as an information source.” So, I think they take a much more calculated view of the value of the data they cannot get if they do not have a social network that is widely used. I think that scares them.

In other words, as a popular phrase about social networks puts it: “If you’re not paying for it, then you are the product.” Google fundamentally sees something like Google+ as an engine that produces information — data increasingly crucial to its business — and that engine just happens to be powered by people clicking things and sharing things and giving things the “plus one.” When I read comments from people like Edwards or Adams, I picture a Google engineer looking at the users of Google+ as though they were pistons and crankshafts in an internal combustion engine.

Advertising is becoming social too

Adams also hints in his post at the reason why Google has to figure out social behavior: because the future of advertising, and therefore the future of Google, is being rewritten by the social behavior of web users on networks like Twitter and Facebook (and, Google hopes, on Google+). Although many people have assumed that the former Googler would be working on something similar to Circles for Facebook, Adams says that he is working on the advertising side of the social network, because he believes that “the web is being fundamentally rebuilt around people and the world of advertising will fundamentally change because of the emergence of the social web.”

The former Googler is right, as we’ve pointed out before (subscription required). Social signals are playing a larger and larger role in determining what people find and when, and where their attention lies, and Google has to find ways of getting that information and making sense of it — both for search and for search-related advertising, which is the company’s lifeblood.

Facebook and Twitter are both playing hard to get with that information, since they realize it is the core of whatever value they have to offer as well, and therefore the core of their business model. So Google has to find ways of reproducing it somehow, and Google+ is an attempt to do that. Whether the company can engineer its way toward success without ever really understanding how social behavior works, however, remains to be seen. And paying little attention to people like Paul Adams and allowing them to go to a major competitor isn’t a very positive sign.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson

16 Responses to “Hey Google — being social is not an engineering problem”

  1. Thomas P.

    The argument that “social is not an engineering problem” is misleading. Facebook’s culture is every bit as engineering-driven as Google’s is, and if you think Facebook somehow has more sociology experts on staff than Google, you’re underestimating the variety of talent at Google.

    Really the make up of these big tech companies are all fairly similar and interchangeable, the same people work at Facebook that worked at Large Company X a few years ago, and will go on to work at Large Company X a few years from now. They’re no more naturally inclined for success, and now that Google has turned their full attention to building a social product, they’ve built an outstanding one.

    “Social isn’t a part of Google’s DNA” screams to be an “angle” that journalists use to make their obligatory blog posts juicier, which is unfair to the hard work that both Facebook and Google put in to make their products.

  2. “This is arguably a fundamental part of why being social simply isn’t in Google’s DNA, as we have pointed out a number of times.”

    Why is gigaom repeating the same stuff!!!! This is not good. We have read this stuff over and over again at gigaom. Do you want us to come back to read the same stuff?

  3. Hi Mathew,

    Thanks for the post. I saw it republished on Reuters, via Google News interestingly enough.

    Although Armin said, “you are reaching here,” I think your perspective says a lot about what users can expect from Google and Google+. As an algorithm-based search engine, I expect my participation in the Google social product to have some marketing characteristics. Conversely, social networks dealing user data (private or not) for advertising revenue seems a bit disengenuous.

    For me anyways, there’s an understanding and expectation that will market towards my interests in Google+ that I’m choosing to accept as a user. I tend to side with criticisms of Facebook (at that refer to it as ‘going to a friend’s house for pizza, then suddenly finding out it’s a Pizza Hut focus group.’

    The customer’s level of trust and understanding is initially different, I think. Which advertising model will be more successful, will show in time.

  4. ronald

    First of: FB nor Google are even close to real social

    For example: I work with someone and being friends with the same person. Now I communicate with that person. In real live he would know and get social clues if this is work related or I’m just making fun as a friend. He then would respond accordingly. If the “social” communication does not enable the same behavior and separation there is information loss. Which is an engineering problem, which might be resolved in the system autonomously. Picking a work email address instead of a private one to limit the information loss in communication.

    Google has a tunnel view, research has shown that “smart” system integrate data into context based on timing[1] and context, I call it occurrence based data binding.
    Google still tries to solve that problem with ever bigger statistical models[2], hence they build information loss right into circles. Means they don’t only have a problem with social research, they have a problem with math, as I pointed out [2].

    ‘Among the key findings: Neurons are quite adept at their job. “They can pick out a signal from hundreds of other, similar signals,” said Forger, an associate professor of mathematics in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and a research assistant professor of computational medicine and bioinformatics at the U-M Medical School.

    Neurons discriminate among signals based on the signals’ “shape,” (how a signal changes over time), and Forger and coauthors found that, contrary to prior belief, a neuron’s preference depends on context. Neurons are often compared to transistors on a computer, which search for and respond to one specific pattern, but it turns out that neurons are more complex than that. They can search for more than one signal at the same time, and their choice of signal depends on what else is competing for their attention.’


  5. This article is far too one-sided. Allow me to point out a few fallacies in your analysis:

    You fail to acknowledge Google’s recent reorganization, which could potentially impact much of the decision-making and promotion of projects. Apart from Adams’ quote, the rest of the data you are basing your argument on is older, and things may or may not have changed since then.

    There is a recurring theme here that engineering != social at any level whatsoever. These aren’t mutually exclusive, and the “pistons and crankshafts in an internal combustion engine” metaphor seems silly to me (not least because I doubt many Googlers are mechanical engineers). An engineer can be, and more often than not is, just as social as the next person. They’re all people with various interests, hobbies and backgrounds and so forth.

    Google has made quite a fortune doing their thing. People seem to expect them to throw it all out the window and start from scratch. Referring to Levy’s comment: even for a social product, it makes sense to back up ideas with data, and I’m sure it’s not that difficult to spot an engineer in Google to help promote a project. Especially when we’re talking about as huge a project as G+ is – make no mistake, it costs many millions of dollars to develop and maintain such a service at such a scale. You don’t spend that kind of money on a junior employee’s hunch that the product he envisions could be awesome without further data or support to back it up, no matter what company and what product.

    To sum up, I believe that since the early reviews of G+ are generally very positive, they deserve at least the benefit of the doubt. People change, companies change (and I wish everyone would stop using the rather poor DNA metaphor for companies). This feels to me completely different from any previous so-called “attempt at social” by Google. Orkut, Wave and Buzz were minor products, with far less emphasis within the company. Wave really can’t be considered a social network at all, just an interesting collaboration tool that was poorly handled.
    Only time will tell, but if you ask me it’s about time Facebook has some competition.

    • Thanks, Nadav — you are right that the reorganization *could* change things at Google. Has it? I don’t know. If you have any information on that, I’d be happy to hear about it. As for engineering!=social, I know that engineers can be social, but being social and understanding how it works are two different things. And yes, I know that Google developers aren’t mechanical engineers — it was a metaphor. Thanks for the comment.

  6. I’m already on the verge of passing on Google+, which is absolutely boring and lacking in innovation (circles and video chat have been around in various formats for years). They are turning into the most aggressive aggregator service and Google+ is just one more attempt at aggregating data.

    You even quote a very poignant statement from Doug Edwards: “They look at it and say, ‘the information created in social networks is extremely important and valuable….'”

    Yeah — all they want is the data for additional aggregation. Google may never understand what social media is all about. They haven’t yet discovered the data superstructures that operate at the intuitive level of human comprehension. It’s not all about numbers.

  7. “the future of advertising, and therefore the future of Google, is being rewritten by the social behavior of web users on networks like Twitter and Facebook”.

    Do you mean spam, uh, promoted tweets is the future of advertising?

    I’d love to see a poll of how many ads Facebook users actually remember seeing on their FB pages. I’d bet it’s near zero. I have a hard time believing Facebook is rewriting advertising.

      • If the social behavior of people on networks like FB was changing advertising, then I would think we would see a decline in ads on other mediums that don’t rely on social networking, like, say, search engines and TV shows. Yet that is not happening; Google revenues from search ads continue to climb, and I was told recently that CBS even raised their advertising rates, which shocked me, as I thought TV was losing ads to the net, but obviously not.

  8. EntrepreNerd

    Companies make products that support their main goal, which is always to be profitable enough to stay relevant and keep the lights on.

    This is the case with Facebook and every other company I have heard of. Do you think the people throwing money at Facebook are in it because, “they enjoy warm and fuzzy social interaction…?” Do you think Microsoft invested about $240,000,000 in Facebook because it had a case of the warm-fuzzy-sharing-snuggles?

    People seem to think that “social” is hard for Google because they were viewing little standalone Apps like Buzz as though it was a full fledged social network, which clearly it is not. Google has never attempted to release a social platform that was intended to be on par with Facebook. That is until Google Plus.

    Social is as simple as providing people with tools that allow them to mimic real world social interactions in an online environment. And to that end Google+ is an outstanding product. A product I will continue to use with great joy, and that is really all that matters.

    All this nonsense about Google+ VS Facebook VS this VS that VS Twitter VS the other thing, simply does not matter to most people. Regardless of the free tools we use, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, etc., our data is being used in service of that companies bottom line, and it is a good thing too. Free tools cost someone a lot of money to build and maintain, so I have no trouble providing that company with social signals, IF, and this is a big “if” for me, they can do it without exploiting my privacy and/or forcing me to be public by default. (I am looking at you Facebook.)

    In the end I think people will select the tools that best suit their method of communication, which is a very good thing for Google+.

  9. You are reaching here. All you did was repeat the words of disgruntled employee. Furthermore, your (and everyone else who reports on this topic) point that google just doesn’t get social is moot by the release of google + and in addition to YOU using every day!

    • Steve, as I mentioned on Google+, I tried to take a thread from Paul’s post and connect it to other things that supported his case — sorry if that didn’t meet your standards of value. Thanks for the comment though.