When people think of social networks they think of the big two and their feed driven approach so will the Social Layer gain traction or merely serve to confuse?
Having remarked that "social is dead" and seeing other posts asking if it is time to drop social I find myself asking where the future of social lies. As networks are moving to position themselves outside of their traditional remit which approach will retain the most traction as social becomes ever more prevalent.
What path does the average user understand?
Google is being bold, breaking with tradition by trying to extend G+ beyond the realms of a "normal" social network. The Social Layer aims to give all Google applications a social aspect so that we can don't actually need to visit the core site.
Whether this will be a sprawling mix of disparate standards or eventually gel into a cohesive system so that all apps behave in a similar fashion remains to be seen but, with the efforts to redesign services across the board it is hopefully the latter.
Will the typical end user grasp the idea of Plus? Will the non-linear nature of such a service attract the public or is a "walled garden" approach such as Facebook's - where everything is self contained - be more easily understood?
Here be monsters
With the likes of Facebook and Twitter there is no ambiguity as to where "social" starts or stops; what will or won't be part of the social network; we know where we are navigating.
With Plus, people may be using a Google service but not necessarily understand the full implications of what they are doing beyond the confines of the service itself - off the edge of the map.
Alternatively, is that open nature going to appeal to those who want to be able to share but don't want to have the aggravation of having to visit a social network?
I have said myself that Google needed a "destination" in order to properly compete in social (which in itself conforms to the view of a social network being a self contained entiry) but now that they have it they are also trying to chart new waters.
Prior to the launch of Google+ when rumour was rife about the direction Google would take it was suggested that Buzz was being rewritten as an aggregator for our activity in other services but the likes of Fred Wilson argued that this would not work as there was no coherent purpose.
At present G+ still resembles this description with the Stream having a traditional flow and acting as the recepticle for external shares. As much as many would hate to admit it, the current functionality largely mirrors Facebook with the +1 button taking the place of Likes and Shares. The new option now rolling out to show the "Best or Latest" posts at the top of our stream is another perfect example and illustrates the idea of functionality becoming the social norm.
For Plus to act as a true social layer I would expect social functionality to be housed on the source service as well as at the Stream so that we do away with the need to navigate away from the source should we wish to view any conversation resulting from our activity.
Still, it is early days yet.
One area where Facebook achieves this social layer behaviour is with Facebook comments. Having site owners install Facebook Comments and entrust their conversations to the social giant is a demonstrates how the layer should operate with the comments appearing in both locations so that they can be viewed, and more importantly interacted with, either in the feed or at the source. Plus doesn't yet offer us this degree of flexibility although I would imagine it is only a matter of time.
Are users conditioned to how a social network operates? Does something that seeks to buck the trend stand a good chance of success? People flock to traditional social networks as that's where their friends are; when people think of social they think of the big two and their feed driven approach so why would they be looking for for something else - is a social layer approach too different?
As Plus develops and extends to more services it is an ideal opportunity for Google to catch those users who resist joining traditional social networks (why would I want an account for 'x') but in order to do so the core tasks need to be better advertised.
It is interesting to see Google makes use of their main search page to promote other applications within their stable such as Plus itself or, most recently, Maps but I can't help but feel this promotion needs to be far less subtle than a simple text link in order to really succeed.
As I wrote previously most internet users are task oriented, even now, so making it as simple as possible to achieve those tasks is the best way to entice people in, the social aspect can then be tagged on at the same time. Links to upload and share a picture or video rather than links to Photos or YouTube could emphasise this task based behaviour amd encourage greater use by reevaluating "what brings us to social media".
Plus is branded as "real life sharing for the web" so it has a core purpose in order to satisfy the concern raised above, the key now is to promote exactly how the social layer allows us to achieve this.
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Image by wadetaylor