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Clash of the Social Network Titans: Google+, Facebook, and Twitter

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Strengths and weaknesses of social network Google+
  • How Facebook and Twitter compare with Google+
  • What's in store for the future of social networks

A few weeks into Google+, and most at least know of the new social networking site, even if they haven't joined yet. Still resisting? Based on its current growth rate, you may want to jump in sooner rather than later.

Below, I compare and contrast the network properties and social principles behind the most popular social platforms.

Facebook

Facebook's utility comes from helping users simply maintain all of the relationships in their lives. However, real-world relationships are complex. Not every relationship is the same, and every friend is unique. By collapsing all the different relationships into one bucket of "friends," Facebook created the problem of conflicting social spheres. Some groups just don't mix in real life, and some information is not for all friends—regardless of how close your relationship is.

Offline, people deal with that problem by spatial-temporal segregation. We simply meet different groups of people at different places and times. But on Facebook, we're stuck; we either don't share, or share with everyone. Although Facebook subsequently implemented features that allow users to place friends into groups, those features were Band-Aid fixes that didn't drive adoption. Google+ addresses that problem with Circles.


Friendship on Facebook is bidirectional, requiring both parties' consent to connect. Anyone can initiate the connection, but the other person must accept it to create a tie. Those mutual, reciprocal "friendships" help keep the relationships and content on Facebook relevant. As a result, the signal-to-noise ratio on Facebook is fairly high compared with other networks that require only unidirectional consent, such as Twitter.

However, bidirectional consent is not without cost. One of its drawbacks is that it requires the coordination and alignment of intent between two people. That is harder to achieve than it may seem and it limits a network's growth rate.

Twitter

Unlike Facebook, Twitter requires only unidirectional consent to connect with another user, resulting in greater growth potential. Despite Twitter's 140-character limit, it's grown at an astounding rate. Twitter use has spread so feverishly that Twitter has created a communication network with lower degrees of separation than the social networks in our physical world.

The average path length between any random pair of Facebook users is about 5.73, which is on par with the six degrees of separation in real-life social networks. But the average path length between random pairs of Twitter users is only 4.12. That means networks requiring only unidirectional consent could lead to a smaller world, where people are closer (i.e., the average path length is shorter). Accordingly, information spreads faster on Twitter.

The unique value that Twitter provides is the simplicity of the platform, which requires almost no effort to adopt and use; it's growth is directly attributable to that simplicity. That said, membership growth doesn't imply that users will continue to use the platform. In fact, the number of active members on the site is not very impressive at all. A significant number of Twitter accounts are inactive, and many active members are bots.

The biggest problem of a unidirectionally connected network is that it makes content less relevant. Twitter streams ("timelines") are often flooded with noise; tweets have a low signal-to-noise ratio. Twitter implemented lists, a receiver curation mechanism, to help users curate content—but lists are insufficient. Like any unidirectionally connected network, Twitter connections are much weaker. The ties that bind Twitter users are less cohesive, more fragile, and therefore less sticky—a probable contributor to Twitter's low ratio of active-to-total user base.

Google+

Like Twitter, Google+ requires only unidirectional consent to connect. Though that approach aims to combat some of Facebook's more complicated alignment of relationships, the resulting growth also makes the network noisier. To deal with the noise, Google+ has Circles that enable receiver curation.

But will Google+ turn into a glorified Twitter? If people fail to put their connections into the proper circles, then Google+ can certainly turn into just another noisy stream. However, even if people spend time to categorize their connections, there's still no guarantee that receiver curation is a strong enough filtering mechanism to deal with the noise.

Google handles both of those problems very well with its user-experience design. To encourage the use of Circles, Google+ "gamified" its Circle Editor. Categorizing connections is both simple and fun.

To deal with the problem of receiver curation, the Circles feature enables an additional mechanism: sender curation. Users can selectively share with different subsets of their connections using a combination of individual users, circles, extended circles, or the public. Though sender curation isn't unique to Google+ (Facebook and LinkedIn automatically incorporate those mechanisms due to the bidirectional nature of those networks), its effectiveness depends on the sharing behavior of the sender.

Aside from its social network, Google+ also provides many community-building tools. Google+ has made it easy for people to find content they are passionate about via Spark. And if there is ever a need for high-bandwidth, face-to-face communication, users can start a Hangout (video group chat) with up to 10 people.

Those tools enable relevant groups of users to hold conversations about a common interest, which can eventually develop into real relationships. So Google+ is not only a social network but is also overlay with communities, which is how humans operate in the physical world.

And the Winner is...

Now, is Google+ the ultimate answer for managing our relationships? Probably not. In real life, our relationships are very complex. Each is unique. In Google+, everyone would be his or her own circle, nested inside a complex hierarchy of context that changes over time. As for features, Google+ definitely packaged a lot of essential social features in a well-integrated platform, so +1, Google+.

For Google+ to win, it needs to gain users with lots of friends who can bring those friends to the new platform. However, Facebook is still more than 70 times larger than Google+. Its true strength, however, is not the sheer volume of its user base but the cohesiveness of its networks.

Facebook contains many strong ties: families, close friends, high school buddies, etc. Having a lot of those strong connections is what makes Facebook extremely sticky. Strictly from a network value perspective, the more friends a person has on Facebook, the more utility she can derive from the network (i.e., network effect).

Conversely, more is lost by switching to Google+, where connections may not be present. That's why users with many friends (and who can bring many friends to Google+) are precisely those who are hardest to get—because they are least likely to switch. Users who have few or no friends are the easiest to switch, yet they are least effective for driving adoption of the new network.

For a more complete picture, consider the business ecosystem built into these platforms. Facebook has been around for eight years and has a large network of partners and developers who have built apps and businesses on the Facebook platform. Some of those partners (e.g., Zynga) even spawned entire industries.

Likewise, Twitter (five years old) strategically opened a sampling of its data via its public API. That resulted in a huge ecosystem of software apps, tools, services, and businesses. Those business relationships are not going to disappear overnight. And Google+, only a little more than few weeks old, clearly doesn't have that external infrastructure yet.

So who is going to win? I foresee a fragmented social networking marketplace without a single dominant player. Google+, Facebook, and Twitter have their own unique strengths and niches. The only clear winners, in the end, are consumers. A healthy amount of competition drives innovation, differentiation, and specialization. As the industry matures, convergence and interoperability will ultimately lead to better service for the end users.


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Michael Wu is the principal scientist at Lithium Technologies, focusing on analytics with a stress on consumer behavior. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow his thoughts on Twitter at twitter.com/mich8elwu.

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Comments

  • by Kevin Lycett Mon Aug 8, 2011 via web

    Excellent article. Thanks for taking the time to do the thinking us busy frontliners don't have the time to do!

  • by Mamie Mon Aug 8, 2011 via web

    Hey Michael, thanks for the review. I have tried and tried to get signed up with Google+ and they promise to invite me soon. Can anyone share an invitation? Thanks.

  • by Chris Tebo Mon Aug 8, 2011 via web

    Good article. One of the points made in the article and one that needs to be expanded upon is the main weakness of Facebook. Not being able to segregate friends and the access they have has kept many users from continuing to use FB as often as in the past (I am one of these users) The fact is that FB uses the information sharing to sell its advertising. I don't see a way aroun their information sharing. I predict that it will eventually lead to FB becoming less dominant; as long as a competitor can capitalize on this weakness. Already, there is a decrease in usage. Those acquaintances of mine that I talk to offline or off of FB all say the same thing. They are tired of time wasting features, overload of advertiziing and concerns about information sharing. Some of them are teachers and they don't relish having personal information or comments shared among those that are not close relationships. It can be risky for current and future employment.

    Cyberspace is neat but comments can last a lifetime. Google your name sometime and see what pops up. You might be surprised to see some of your opinions pop up if you have ever commented on anything.

    Just as ignoring the Internet by Microsoft was almost its undoing, Facebook faces the same challenge unless they figure a way around information sharing and friend segmentation. Microsoft is already starting to experience its second biggest challenge from Cloud applications and freeware such as Open Office. Facebook, while not experiencing a direct threat other than Google+ at the moment, does face problems with keeping users happy and friend segmentation.

  • by Cesar Malacon Mon Aug 8, 2011 via web

    It is not hard to expect a better planned Google+ after them having had the chance to learn from others.
    For me, the main advantage of G+ is the sender curation feature. That way my separation "fb" for friends and Twitter for professional, is a likely to be able to be performed in the same platform, even though I totally agree -and is my case- with the burden of bringing everyone of my connections in other networks to G+.

    Good artlicle! I liked it and share in all 3 of my profiles :-)

  • by Michael Wu PhD Tue Aug 9, 2011 via web

    Hello Chris,

    Thank you for the comment.

    Yes, the inability to segregate friends/relationships into groups is precisely the problem of conflicting social sphere that I talked about in and earlier post I authored:
    http://lithosphere.lithium.com/t5/Building-Community-the-Platform/The-Social-Dynamics-of-Facebook-Fan-Pages/ba-p/17938

    However, I do want to emphasize that FB does allow you do do segregate information sharing into different groups. They are just very hard to use. They are so hard to use that it almost feels like FB don't want you to use it.

    Despite that FB is not able to keep their user happy, they do have some unique value that they are offering that is not available from other platforms. That is why I say that the market will probably fragment and there will no longer be a single dominant player. However, when a direct competition arrive, they would be in danger. And that may or may not even be Google+.

  • by Michael Wu PhD Tue Aug 9, 2011 via web

    Hello Cesar,

    Thank for the comment as well as the likes and shares...

    Google definitely has the advantage of learning from the success and failure of other platforms. But in the fast-pace world of social media, time to market is also a huge advantage, which gives Facebook an upper arm on this competition. That being said, I think it is not easy to pull off what Google did, and I had to give them credit for doing a phenomenal job.

    I totally agree that being able to have friends, colleages, and interested followings all at one place is definitely an attractive feature as it simplifies things for users. That is worth something there. In fact, simplifying thing is a form of gamification. If you are interested in this, feel free to check out another article I've written on that subject:
    http://lithosphere.lithium.com/t5/Building-Community-the-Platform/Simplicity-Counts-Even-in-Gamification/ba-p/22482

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • by Rob Elliott Wed Aug 10, 2011 via web

    Interesting article. I think it's worth pointing out though, that Google + is still in field trial though.

    https://sites.google.com/a/pressatgoogle.com/google-plus/field-trial

  • by Rowan Norrie Wed Aug 10, 2011 via web

    For a fun comparison see the Social Network sites as super heroes: http://blog.freestyleinteractive.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Final-Ver... (click to zoom)

  • by Hulk Wed Aug 10, 2011 via web

    This seems like it was written as much to confuse the issue as to clariify it. Complex terms for simple ideas, one hundred words to express what could be better said in 40. Next time, try the rule of every great scientist: Explain this in terms any person on the street could understand, and resist terms like unidirectional and others that force is to wade and wonder through your article in search of some new insight. This kind of writing won't survive the social media age; we will read the lead and skip it.

  • by Todd Skinner Thu Aug 11, 2011 via web

    Interesting article, Google will always be the winner, clean well performing search engines will always win. I like them just because of no banner advertising.

    Todd Skinner - Visizzle - Branding - Marketing
    http://www.visizzle.com

  • by MFQ Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Congratulations Michael on the article and the clear comparisons. Unlike @Hulk who seems not to understand, I think your article is crystal clear. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  • by Michael Wu PhD Tue Aug 23, 2011 via web

    Hello MFQ, Todd, and Hulk,

    Thank for for the comment.

    First of all. I apologize if this seem more scientific than some of your taste. But I did define what "Unidirectional" vs "Bidirectional" in plain English. I don't want to say "network that does not require both parties's consent to connect" every time I say "unidirectional."

    If that is still not enough, then I'm truly sorry. I must apologize that cannot write the article for every level and everyone.

    However, I like to clarify that scientific language and terminology exist for a reason. And they are not meant to confuse people. Rather they are meant to make clear the distinctions that are often overlook. Just calling all of these platform social networks and treat them as equal would overlook the precise process that lead to the formation of these networks. Certainly these minor distinction may not be important for everyone. Some may not even care. But nevertheless there are distinctions. Just like you don't call anything that has wing a bird. But if all that you are concern with is whether an animal has wing or not, then that would be fine. But if you want to know something deeper, it is also helpful to know that distinctions exist. Some birds are call ducks, some are call penguins, etc. And they are different in x, y and z ways.

    I apologize again if I've confuse the subject more than clarify it.

    If you like a more in depth treatise, you can read the 4 articles I've written on this subject on my blog. Maybe the infographics I've attempted to point out the difference in the article below would help to clear up some confusions.

    http://lithosphere.lithium.com/t5/Building-Community-the-Platform/Google-vs-Facebook-vs-Twitter-vs-Part-4-And-the-Winner-is/ba-p/29878

    Thanks again for all your comments.

  • by Nhan Nguyen Tue Feb 14, 2012 via web

    Thank you for your article! It's very useful! I'm looking forward to reading more related articles! Have a nice day!

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