[Usual disclaimer: I currently work for Google on Google+ (which I think is awesome), but as always the thoughts on this blog are purely my personal opinion as a lifelong technology lover and builder.]
At the core of innovation in social networking is the competition to be a user’s tool of choice when they have something to share. Most people go to social networks because their friends are sharing there, and there is an inherit scarcity to compete for because most people aren’t willing to share something more than once (some may syndicate their content elsewhere, if permitted, but the original content is usually shared on a single service). Thus every time people are moved to share, they must choose which tool to use (if any)–a social network, via email/sms, etc.
Conventional wisdom holds that the main factor determining where a user will share is audience size (i.e. where they have the most friends/followers, which for most people today means Facebook or Twitter), but the successful rise of services like Foursquare, Instagram, Path, Tumblr, and Google+ shows that there’s more to the story. Despite the continued cries of “it’s game-over already for social networking” or “these services are all the same”, I don’t think that’s the case at all, and apparently I’m not alone.
These newer services are all getting people to share on them, even though in most cases those users are sharing to a smaller audience than they could reach on Facebook or Twitter. What’s going on here? It seems to me that these services have all realized that the competition for sharing is about more than audience size, and in particular includes the following additional two axes:
- Ease of sharing to a more specific/targeted audience
- Ease of sharing more tailored/beautiful content
Sharing to a more specific/targeted audience sounds like the opposite of “sharing where all of my friends/followers already are”, but not everything we say is meant to be heard by everyone. In fact, when I ask people why they don’t share more online, two of the most frequent responses I get have to do with having too much audience: privacy and relevance. Sometimes you don’t want to share something broadly because it’s too personal or sensitive, and sometimes you just don’t want to bug everyone. In both cases, services that help you share more narrowly and with more precision can “win your business” when you otherwise would have shared reluctantly or not at all.
Foursquare, Path, and Google+ (and email) are all good examples of this. Sharing your current location can be both sensitive and noisy, but on foursquare most people maintain a smaller and more highly trusted list of friends, and everyone there has also chosen to use the service for this purpose. Thus it wins on both privacy and relevance, whereas Facebook Places has largely failed to compete, in part because people have too many friends there. Similarly, Path encourages you to only share to your closest set of friends and family, and thus you feel free to share more, both because you trust who’s seeing your information, and because they’re less likely to feel you’re “spamming them” if they’re close to you. And by letting you share to different circles (or publicly) each time you post, Google+ lets you tune both the privacy and relevance of your audience each time you have something to say. Google+ users routinely post to several distinct audiences, showing that we all have more to say if we can easily control who’s listening.
Sharing more tailored/beautiful content is in theory orthogonal to audience size/control, but it’s another instance in which smaller services often have an advantage, because they can specialize in helping users quickly craft and share content that is richer and more visually delightful than they could easily do on a larger and more generic social network. This is an effective axis for competition in sharing because we all want to express ourselves in a way that’s compelling and likely to evoke delight and reaction from our friends/followers. So services that help you look good can again “win your business” when you otherwise would have shared something generic or not at all.
Instagram and Tumblr jump out from my list above as services that have attracted users because they help you “look good for less”, but actually all five services have succeeded here to some extent. A foursquare check-in has rich metadata about the place you’re visiting, so it’s a more meaningful way to share than simply saying “I’m eating at Cafe Gibraltar”. Instagram lets you apply cool filters to your photos, and more importantly IMO, constrains the sharing experience to only be a single photo with a short caption (thus further encouraging this type of sharing). Path just looks beautiful end-to-end, which entices you to live in their world, and they also add lovely touches like displaying the local weather next to your shared moments or letting you easily share when you went to bed and woke up (and how much sleep you got). Again, these are all things you could share elsewhere, but it just feels better and more natural on these more tailored services. Tumblr is “just another blogging tool” in some ways, but its beautiful templates and its focus on quickly reblogging other content along with a quick message has led to an explosion of people starting up their own “tumblelogs”. And on Google+, one of the reasons a thriving photography community quickly formed is just that photos are displayed in a more compelling and engaging way than elsewhere.
The future of social networking will be largely about making it easier to share richer content with a more relevant audience. Some already decry the current “information overload” on social networks, but I would argue that (a) many/most of the meaningful moments in the lives of people I care about are still going un-shared (mainly because it’s too hard), (b) the feeling of overload largely comes from the low “signal-to-noise ratio” of posts shared today (owing to the lack of easy audience targeting), and (c) the content shared today is largely generic and homogeneous, thus it’s harder to pick out the interesting bits at the times when its most relevant. But as long as entrepreneurs can think up new ways to make it easier to capture and share the moments of your life (and the things you find interesting) in beautiful, high fidelity, and make it easier to share those moments with just the right people at the right time, we’ll soon look back on the current state of social networking with the same wistful bemusement we cast today on brick-sized feature phones and black-and-white personal computers. Let’s get to it!