Google Me - The future of social networking?

There’s been plenty of debate over what Google Me will be when it launches - and I’ve certainly not read all of it. I do however believe that Google is in the best position to create a killer and yet open social network.

My idea of a perfect social network at this point would be 

  • Open identity - to allow me to login with my OpenID
  • Ability to create and share status updates, photos, videos, and links to any of the social networks that my friends are using
  • Ability for my friends to comment and interact with my activity streams such that I get the comments back on my original item - back in my preferred social network
  • One list of contacts that I can segment into groups and transport between social networks and my email/phone
  • Location based checkins, with my locations available to a select group of my friends

Here’s why I don’t think facebook, twitter or foursquare will win this in the long run:-

Facebook

Facebook has the first-mover advantage of having a the largest number of users (over 500 million in July 2010), and it’s also great for supporting conversations - but only between your Facebook friends within the system - which of course serves to pull in more users.

I think Facebook will continue to be closed in spirit - because they want to control the world’s social information. They’re spreading tentacles into site across the web (including this one) in order to be able to aggregate a huge amount of data about your likes, and those of your friends - that they can then use to build up an very detailed picture of each of us for their advertisers.  They seem to be working with the open social movement, have committed to activity streams and  positioned facebook connect as open, but I get the impression that they’re only going as far as it suits them.  

Twitter

Twitter is open in that messages are public by-default, and through twitter search or one of the many clients like hootsuite, you can listen in on the conversation and jump in when you spot a key-word you’re interested in.  One of the major downsides of the platform though is that conversations are terribly hard to follow between more people than just you and one other.  There’s no concept of the threaded conversation.

Twitter have also so far not agreed to provide their ‘firehose’ or full feed via PubSubHubBub - so that other sites may interact with it, probably because adding their support (and users) to this open real-time publishing mechanism would serve to threaten their particular differentiator.

Foursquare and GoWalla

Foursquare and Gowalla have great location-based capabilities, but they’re not that useful to me as standalone applications - because the effort required to sign into yet another application or web-service is too much for most people to use. Only 4% of my facebook friends are on foursquare.  Foursquare only has around 2 million users, vs Facebook’s 500 million (or 0.04%).

Diaspora

Diaspora is a wild-card which could indeed provide an open and de-centralized social network, but they’re going to have a really hard time competing with facebook’s dominance - even with the fact that it’s a distributed network. I suspect that it will turn out to support a group of open-social-network-chimps, rather than a gorilla - and won’t come close to toppling Facebook or Google. I hope they succeed in at least pushing Facebook to be more open and honest… and I’ll certainly be joining Leo in creating an account when they open the doors.

Google

Google’s stated aim is to organize the world’s information… Note that they don’t want to own it, they just want to organize it (and sell ads against it). I think you get an understanding of this when you look at Google Places on android. They do allow you to add your own business directly to Google places, but they also grab data from independent review sites like qype - and integrate the information seamlessly into the Places app. I’ve often spotted my qype reviews popping up in response to a Google Places search.

If you think about how they might extend this concept to integrating activity streams from all of your online presences into Google Me - they could build a central hub that supports innovative niche services such as foursquare - rather than trying to replace them. I think this is how they’re going to start anyway - because it will make it much easier to kick-start the network effect by hooking into our existing social services and social graph.

Photos and video are of course the things that people share the most, after links on social networks - and Google have Picasa and YouTube - which they’ve (eventually) tied to your Google account. These services are pretty well designed with all of the capabilities a photo and video sharing site should have - putting them one step ahead of facebook.

Google have gmailmobile, and voice - all of which provide a great understanding of who my real friends are (people I talk to on the phone, and send emails to on a regular basis) and is something that twitter and facebook don’t.  Combine this with a good understanding of my social graph via the XFN tools - and a little bit of clever user-experience design work - and Google could easily help me to build a set of friend-groups that would be much more effective than facebook’s friend lists.

Google Buzz, whilst not being a particularly social network to date - is probably one of the most open - especially since they’ve added the firehose capability - publishing feeds in real-time via PubSubHubBub. If you also consider that something like 200 million people have a gmail (and therefore potentially a Buzz) account - they certainly have a good foundation to build from.

Nick O’Neill asks the question - Will Android Trump Facebook as the Social Operating System?, which is an interesting one if you think about it. The most sensible place for your social network to run from is the smart-phone - because it’s always with you - knows your location, and is also the device you probably make most of your voice calls on these days. I’ve been very impressed at the way that Android pulls together all of my contacts from Outlook/Exchange, Facebook, Twitter and Gmail into one unified contacts list - which checks of one of my ideal social network requirements.

The rate at which Android is growing is somewhat staggering - with 200,000 devices being activated each day (Aug 2010), making Android a significant part of the Google Me platform.

With the Google Profiles and Buzz as the foundation, with the promise of Android, I’m really excited about the potential of Google Me.