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In the 1986 cult sci-fi movie Highlander, the immortals had to kill each other off in order to absorb their opponent’s energy and become the leader of the clan. On Friday, Google took the same approach to its social efforts, nuking a number of different projects — including the ill-fated Buzz network, a service called Jaiku, and the social elements of the iGoogle platform. In a post on Google+, Brad Horowitz said that the company had learned a lot from its efforts but needed to focus its energy more, and it seems obvious that Google+ is to be the only one remaining on the Google battlefield. But has the web giant really learned that much from Buzz and Jaiku?
Like more than a few others who wrote about the news, I confess that I thought Jaiku (which Google bought in 2007) had already gotten the axe a long time ago. The idea of the service was very similar to Twitter and other services that sprang up around the same time, such as Plurk and Pownce: Users could create a stream of personal information that could be shared with others, which was called a Lifestream. There are obvious similarities between that and what Google+ does — and Google+ also appears to be making use of open APIs to connect with other services, which was one of the things that Jaiku did well.
Buzz, meanwhile, was Google’s first big attempt at a social network that would integrate with other services, a kind of follow-up to Wave — which seemed more like a science project than a real service, and never seemed to get much traction with users. While it may have had some interesting elements to it, Buzz was effectively kneecapped by a number of early stumbles such as poorly communicated settings, which many users took as an invasion of privacy — including a woman who had her abusive ex-husband added to her Buzz network automatically, something that seems like a pretty obvious flaw.
Easy lessons: people want to share, but privacy matters
It’s easy to see some of the lessons that Google might have learned from these two experiences: namely, people like to share information with others, the “activity stream” approach is becoming more and more popular, and you should be careful when you are merging two different aspects of people’s lives — their social network and their email network, which aren’t always the same thing. In terms of insights about the social web, however, these conclusions aren’t exactly rocket science.
But other things seem to have escaped the company when it comes to how people use social networks — and more importantly, *why* they use social networks. Google+ may have 40 million users, but as I’ve argued before it still doesn’t seem to have anything compelling that makes it different from Twitter and Facebook and the other social networks that people are already using. Why would they switch and make Google+ their only network? In some ways it is actually worse than these other networks: for example, Twitter doesn’t care what your “real” name is, but Google has spent a lot of time and effort forcing people to use their legal names, and irritated a lot of users in the process.
Is that because Google wants to be social, or is it because the company wants to be able to including being able to sell you things? The existence of Google+ seems to have more to do with the company’s need to harvest the “social signals” that emerge from such networks in order to improve its search and advertising business — and fend off Facebook — than Google’s desire to create a welcoming environment for social sharing. An engineer for the company described not that long ago how Google has no real interest in social networking for its own sake, but saw it as an information-harvesting strategy.
Does Google have an “if we build it, they will come” problem?
Another Google engineer wrote a post earlier this week (one that appears to have been made public accidentally), and took dead aim at the company’s failure to appreciate how platforms — and particularly social platforms — work, and what is required to make them a success. Steve Yegge said that Google suffers from an “if we build it, they will come” approach to designing such services, and tries to give users what it thinks they want, instead of watching what users do and then making it easier for third-party developers to give them what they want. As he put it:
Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work.
The amount of resources that Google is putting into Google+ is admirable, and it is good to focus on one thing, even if it means beheading other services like Buzz and Jaiku — and CEO Larry Page has made it clear that he wants the network to succeed. But wanting something and having it come true are very different things, and Google could well learn another lesson from Google+: that even if you build it, and it is well-designed from an engineering perspective, people may still not come.