- San Diego, California - Amidst the unbelievable—perhaps exaggerated—buzz surrounding Google Plus, I've read many articles that pit Google's new social networking service against Facebook. One friend of mine predicted “Facebook will be the new Classmates by December.” Others declare that this is the latest of Google's many (failed) efforts to overtake social networking—first with Orkut and then with Google Buzz. I saw similar us-versus-them language when Apple announced Twitter integration with the new iPhone operating system due in September—some commented that it had lost the “social network war” to Facebook since Facebook has more active users than Twitter does. I believe these discussions make a critical mistake in assuming that all social networks are in direct competition with each other. From my experience with Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus, I have found that the three social networks serve different social needs and thus are only peripherally in competition. Though I know I am contradicting the doomsday prophecies of social columnists everywhere, I believe we benefit from having all of these social networks. Each of them serves a specific and unique purpose that the others (for the most part) cannot provide.
Let us look at each of the services in-depth, starting with what is likely familiar to most of our readers: Facebook. With its Friend request/accept system, Facebook is targeted towards one's extended personal network—it focuses initially on connecting people who know each other, even if they've only met once. It then seeks to expand that network with the “People You May Know” feature, which focuses on connecting people with mutual friends. In physical social terms, Facebook is similar to a friend's party, where you can interact with both immediate friends and acquaintances with one degree of separation.
Twitter has an entirely different focus than Facebook. With its simple follow/unfollow system, it increases the emphasis on quality content, since a person can easily be unfollowed en masse if he posts a string of boring, annoying, or offensive tweets. Additionally, the service emphasizes usernames rather than human names, subtly distancing the account from the person using it. This partially explains the large number of fake celebrity Twitter accounts that are run by fans or comedians to either promote celebrities or satirize them. In physical terms, Twitter is like a massive, interactive, universal soapbox and fan club, with users following the thoughts and activities of people they find interesting, but may not know personally.
What does Google Plus have to offer that Twitter and Facebook do not? The “Circles” form of grouping friends places very heavy emphasis on subdivisons of one's personal social circle. Unlike Facebook, upon which the user broadcasts information to all friends indiscriminately, a user on Google Plus consciously chooses small groups of people to which they send information. In the physical social world, this is most similar to grabbing coffee with a few friends—the individuals involved are directly and closely connected (I'm aware that there is a “Post to Public” feature on Google Plus as well; however, this seems incredibly similar to the “soapbox” function of Twitter and thus is less critical to the survival of Google Plus as a unique social medium).
Some might be wondering why would we need all these different ways to communicate online. The simple answer is that we as human beings have different social needs that need fulfillment at different times. Sometimes, we wish to speak publicly, proving to the world and ourselves the merit of our thoughts and ideas. At other times, we wish to socialize, meeting new people and getting to know those we already know. At yet other times, we only wish to speak to our close friends, sharing the special moments in our lives that would not be appropriate or interesting for a larger audience. Someday, a social network may arrive that allows us to do all of these things quickly and efficiently. For now, however, different companies specialize in different forms of social interaction. I welcome the diversity.