Why are people scared of Google’s Social Layers?

scaredSince it was announced that Google are building a social layer, and choosing to do things a little differently, into their apps rather than a separate social network there has been criticism and outright rejection of the idea. But, as I have previously said, taking this approach actually makes quite a lot of sense.

TechCrunch reported:

“Google Me will produce an activity stream generated by all Google products. Google Buzz has been rewritten to be the host of it all. And the reason Google Buzz isn’t currently working in Google Apps is because they’ll use the latest Buzz to support the activity stream in Apps…All Google products have been refactored to be part of the activity stream, including Google Docs, etc. They’ll build their social graph around the stream.”

There has been some disappointment to Google taking this direction but it does not need to build a new social network from scratch - it already has one in the form of Google Buzz. It just needs to develop it further. With the rumor that Buzz will form the aggregator for the various social layers it would appear that this development is already on the cards.

Context

Fred Wilson raised the issue of context and likened this approach to FriendFeed. He cites FriendFeed's failure to make a big impression as an indicator that Buzz as an aggregator could fall flat on its face.

He argues that the likes of Twitter have succeeded because of 'social intent' - users visit the site with a specific purpose in mind (a view I touched on a couple of years back) - whereas, FriendFeed failed as there was no specific intent and items appeared out of context.

I replied to his post with the following comment:

"The key difference to FriendFeed here, as I see it, is that each Google product will have its own social layer specifically tied in to that product - the specific social intent as you describe above.

If the reports are accurate then activity from each of those social layers is aggregated separately (allegedly in Buzz) - so Buzz is the equivalent of FF where you can access all of the social interactions from the products you use in one location.

The fact that each app is social in its own context means that you interact at whichever level you choose. Only use Picasa? Fine just interact there - there is no need to dock with the Buzz mothership. Want to use multilpe products and see what's going on in one central location? Cool - head to Buzz.

In my opinion, it offers choice and flexibility."

This layered approach will afford greater flexibility and allow users to choose how they interact socially - there would be no obligation to use Buzz.

Did FriendFeed really fail?

If you look just at the numbers then, perhaps, FriendFeed could be considered to have failed. Adoption rates aren't up there compared to services like Twitter and usage has dropped off significantly. But let's use Fred's argument of context against him: when you consider that FriendFeed was bought lock, stock and barrel by the single biggest player in the social space and many of it's features found their way in to Facebook itself then you have to consider FriendFeed to have been an ultimate success.

One crucial difference between Google Buzz and FriendFeed is that with the latter there was an explicit requirement to go and sign up an account; with Buzz , if you have a GMail account (and presumably an account with any Google application) you will automatically have a Buzz account. Google needs to ensure that Buzz is advertised but not forced down peoples throats.

#newtwitter, Buzz and context

Look at how Buzz currently operates: items shared into the stream are shown in full. Google Reader shares show the full text of the post (on the proviso that the feed itself publishes full text), images and videos are presented inline, etc. By bringing each social object directly into Buzz the context is largely retained. Discussion about a post makes sense as you have the post itself to refer to, Google just has to be careful what content is aggregated and how it is presented.

The new Twitter website is being hailed as a great way to get the most out of discovery on its network. Context is being introduced by showing images, videos and conversation threads right in the site but do we hear concerns that this will break Twitter and remove the social intent? No, we instead hear that it will facilitate easier discussion and discovery and the information is presented all in one place without so much need to leave the network itself.

I ask you, what's the difference?

Image by Scr47chy

Why are people scared of Google’s Social Layers?

Initial thoughts on Tweetdeck for Android.Comments

TweetdeckRather than write a full review and duplicate the good work of others elsewhere I wanted to share a few thoughts and opinions and how I arrived at them.

The journey

I've always been a geek and have spent (too) many an hour just tinkering and tweaking to get something just the way I want it - whether it be a self build PC, website or phone. In fact I spent a long time building custom Windows Mobile 6.5 roms for my old HTC Touch Dual before the OS was released.

When my Touch Dual died (probably as a result of repeatedly re-flashing too many roms) I was still in contract so couldn't afford another Windows Mobile device. It was disappointing at the time but ultimately did me a big favour. I ended up with a Nokia XM5800 after being surprisingly impressed by the one my wife (@SallyWalker) had bought. Okay, Symbian is far from the best mobile OS but the ability to side load apps from any source was a blessing.

Without a doubt, the best application I have ever used on Symbian is the Twitter client Gravity written by @janole. The interface and design was a masterclass in what Symbian could achieve and should have become a template for how apps look on the platform. I strongly believe that Symbian themselves should really have looked at this and redesigned the OS itself.

Gravity was the perfect Twitter experience for me; it just felt "right". Using accounts from multiple services, GPS, image sharing and URL shortener integration were all there and the app was, quite honestly, way ahead of the competition and really set the standard for how Twitter clients should be, and not just on the Symbian platform.

Gravity was so good that it was the single reason I was hesitant to ditch my Nokia and move to Android. Ever since I have been searching for that perfect Twitter experience on Android but never found it - that could now be about to change.

A new hope

For some reason I can't fathom I've never been a fan of desktop Twitter apps, don't ask me why but I've just never gotten on with them and always preferred to use the web site. I installed the Tweetdeck desktop application but very soon found myself removing it.

Twitter on a phone is different and, while I have still been using the mobile website from time to time, I believe a client is the way to go to get the best from the service. However, being disappointed with the alternatives I stuck with the default HTC application Peep - it was simple and did the basics reasonably well so why waste space installing something else. Just as with desktop clients the rest didn't feel right; perhaps I had just been spoilt by Gravity.

I was intrigued when I heard that Tweetdeck would work in a similar way to Gravity: multiple accounts, swiping from side to side to switch between different columns etc. and I am glad to say that I was not disappointed. Tweetdeck feels so much like Gravity to use that it is almost a homecoming.

The current build may still be a beta with a few bugs and an incomplete feature set but I can honestly not now imagine myself using anything else on an Android device. Not a statement I make lightly.

As well as the overall experience fitting the way I see a mobile Twitter client working there are a number of features which instantly resonated:

  • performing a search and saving the results as a new column so you can keep an eye on a topic in real time
  • the Buzz notifications (I don't have my Facebook account added but it's the same thing) in the 'Me' timeline indicating, for example, if someone liked your post
  • choosing either exact coordinates or a Foursquare "Place" when geotagging
  • the little indications when you have unread items: the dots indicating pages and the yellow scroll bar at the side - the longer the bar the more unread items

The beta support forums are busy already and a lot of the requests mirror things I would personally like to see such as improved support for lists (I may even start using them), the ability to separate different services out to different columns and to show which tweets are geotagged directly in the timeline. Don't get me wrong, the combined Home column works really well with the different colours for the different services you are using but it would nice to have the choice to split them into their own streams.

The single biggest problem with Tweetdeck is the inability to change the refresh times. Currently, the application update your stream every few seconds which, on a device that has known battery life issues, is not a good call and effectively prohibits you from leaving it running in the background. Fortunately, this has already been acknowledged on the support forums so I envisage there being more options in the next build(s).

The future

As long as the key issues get resolved before Tweedeck hits version 1.0 the applications is, in my opinion, streets ahead of any other Twitter client for Android and can only get better.

Initial thoughts on Tweetdeck for Android.

How can Buzz build on its foundations?Comments

BuildAs I mentioned previously, Buzz is gaining momentum but is still in its infancy and needs to develop in order to grab a bigger slice of the pie. The challenge for Google is how best to achieve this; how can Google make Buzz jump from the early adopters to becoming a mainstream service?

It seems that some are blinded by the bells and whistles of Facebook and the reputation of Twitter (built by sheer longevity) and so believe that Buzz is just another also ran - it is too early in the game to make that call.

A post by Shannon Wills at TechShali.com claims that Buzz "has failed to stake a claim in the world of social media" giving 3 reasons why this is the case. The first argument is that Google are too late to the party to have an impact. I say we need to ask if they have arrived after the nibbles have gone and people are making their way home or, are the just fashionably late, know how to make an entrance then capture the imagination of the other guests with their witty repartee - the perfect riposte to the braggado of other networks?

Buzz may not have made the entrance it was hoping for but there is a very solid base. With a bit more work and some additional features Buzz could soon be a major player with the andecotes to wow its fellow party goers.

Gmail, to be or not to be bundled

As Buzz is bundled as a part of GMail there was always going to be a tight integration between the two services which can be a good thing if managed correctly. There have been complaints about inboxes filling up with notifications and this was also given as a reason why Buzz will not succeed; taking control of the settings and muting old threads can cut down on the number of notifications received while still keeping you up to date on the items you are following.

Should Buzz be contained within GMail or a standalone app? I say both. If you are Google you don't want to disconnect from the millions of potential users already sitting in GMail but it would be nice to use Buzz as a self contained application for those who want to. We can view and comment on our buzz data in our Google Profile outside of the confines of GMail and the mobile page is standalone so the main app needs to follow suit whilst still sticking to it's roots.

The need to have a GMail account in order to use the service has also been criticised but, considering the integration, it is probably the best way to go. If Buzz could be used as a standalone service, however, then it would also make sense to have a "Buzz only" account which could, perhaps, be registered against your existing, external, email address.

Buzz v Facebook

My previous post prompted some good discussion via a share on Buzz itself. Parvez Halim raised an interesting point:

I think one of the things that makes FB so appealing is that you have different services within one web app. You have microblogging, photo album, chat, and games. Non-techies don't have to think too much because everything is there in front of them.

I agree that holding all the different facets in one place is indeed nice for those that use them all but what about those who only want to perform specific actions? What if you only want to upload your photos?

I feel that, with some careful work, Google could build on its Profile system and integrate the services you use into one coherent offering despite them being independent applications. If you only use a single app then great, that's all you are shown but for those using multiple services everything would be held in one place - a tab for each. Keeping each of Google's services independent is a distinct advantage in my opinion.

Control

With a service such as Buzz we must remember that users want control over what they see. The search and filtering functionality suggested by Robert Scoble, as mentioned before, is a natural progression for Buzz and I can imagine a number of his suggestions being implemented before long. The ability to find all items that a particular person has commented on or to ignore items from a paticular source (e.g Twitter) would be ideal additions and vastly improve the usability of the service.

Historically, Google have struggled when it comes to the social web. Orkut was a failure and development on Jaiku was abandoned. With little consistency between offerings there appeared to be no central strategy to really succeed in the social space but, with Buzz, things are starting to change.

A paradigm shift within the company is evident now that Google have announced they are seeking to employ a "Head of Social". They are only too aware that they are late to the game but seek to mount a second half fight back. It is clear that individual areas working on their own products need to be brought together under one "social" banner to promote consistency and interoperability. With the right person leading the way Google should be able to regain control and create a comprehensive social policy and - with the technology, resources and extremely knowledgeable user base at their disposal - turn Buzz (or a decendent) into a world class offering.

Image by squeaks2569

How can Buzz build on its foundations?

Why all the buzz about Buzz?Comments

BuzzGoogle Buzz was launched with some fanfare back in February but, I must admit, it completely passed me by at the time. It is still a fledgling service that resides within GMail rather than being a standalone offering so why is it garnering a lot of attention at present?

In light of recent events the most obvious thinking is that people are migrating to Buzz as a backlash against the changes made by Facebook and that is perfectly understandable.

While, not for the same reason, a similar thing happened to Twitter when it was experiencing major performance issues a couple of years ago and we all saw more of the "fail whale" than was good for us. Users went off in search of other homes on the web including Plurk and Identi.ca, for example.

Friendfeed also experienced a huge upsurge in usage at around the same time and it was Friendfeed that I immediately thought off when jumping in to Buzz for the first time - Friendfeed from back at the beginning when it was simpler: likes, sharing, comments and aggregation.

Just as with Friendfeed items in Buzz jump to the top of your timeline when they receive updates and the whole service just feels like stepping into a time-warp. Perhaps this is part of the attraction: just stripping things down to basics and letting the conversation take over. It is simpler than Facebook, in a good way: no games, no ads.

Community

Maybe it's because the social media early adopters remain essentially the same people but even the community on Buzz is an echo of the past - the likes of Robert Scoble, Louis Gray and Thomas Hawk are all very popular, just as they were on Friendfeed. In fact Scoble has drawn up a wish-list of features which virtually mirror a lot of the functionality Friendfeed users have become accustomed to including real-time search and filtering.

Louis has said in a recent post: "I thought that answer was FriendFeed ... But momentum on the site dragged, and the sale to Facebook pretty much confirmed what many thought - that it would never achieve its potential." He also mentions that Buzz has the same potential as Friendfeed "but is driven by a company that appears committed to making it succeed. There are regular updates to Buzz. I have seen some of the sharpest engineers on Google working to make this a success" - the same, however, was said about Friendfeed in it's early days - it was, after all, staffed by many ex-Googlers and the commitment was just as great.

Friendfeed's technical success was, without a doubt, the reason it was acquired by Facebook. Rapid development (often in response to user demands or suggestions) and the first real time search made Friendfeed the leader of the pack so it was unavoidable that the service would suffer after acquisition - this was a buyout of technology, people and know-how. Friendfeed already had a large social network (the largest) why would it need another? To save reinventing the wheel.

Development on Friendfeed has all but stopped but what is to stop Google going the same way? With the "always in beta" philosophy they have previous form when it comes to dropping projects that don't quite work. Hopefully Buzz will not follow that route.

Wise choices

Google have made two key decisions while developing Buzz:

  • including it as an additional tab within GMail
  • having mobile support from the beginning

Those such as Scoble may be crying out for Buzz to be a standalone app (I am inclined to agree) and not be contained within GMail but including the new offering directly within the most widely used web mail service on the planet (over 175 million at the end of last year) provides the type of exposure that most startups could only wish for. If even just a small percentage of GMail users investigate Buzz then this is still a sizable number.

Friendfeed had a big failing in not having it's own in house mobile solution, it came down to Benjamin Golub to develop the excellent third party solution fftogo.com which contributed to him being employed by Friendfeed full time. Google have a long history with mobile devices and really see the importance in getting this right from the outset.

Can it succeed?

The biggest thing in Buzz's favour is, obviously, the huge weight that Google can throw behind it - it is already a trusted name and an instantly recognisable brand. Google, undoubtedly, has the technology required to provide and scale up a huge network with minimal down time. Add to this the wealth of experience of the Jaiku developers who are still on board since Google absorbed Jaiku in 2007.

The ready made user base of an existing means on communication, as I have already mentioned, is ideal for the launch of a social network; Buzz is a natural extension of the combination of GMail and Google Reader and an ideal opportunity to share your pictures from Picasa thereby increasing the visibility of that service as well.

The one thing Google should really try to capitalise on is the bad feeling towards Facebook - nothing boosts success like the failure of others. By extolling the virtues of Buzz - as a contrast to the apparent vice of Facebook - Google could stand to boost both the number of users and sheer amount of usage as people migrate.

As others have already said, we do not want a web where we have just one dominant short status update service (Twitter) and one dominant social sharing service (Facebook) - competition breeds innovation and that can only be good for the consumer.

Image by mrjoro

Why all the buzz about Buzz?