Ever since Digg founder Kevin Rose spilled the beans on Twitter about Google's soon-to-arrive Facebook-killer (how many social media brands can you fit in one sentence!) the internets have been abuzz with speculation as to whether they can actually pull it off.
Facebook's growth seems unstoppable, topping nearly half a billion users, but the social networking behemoth is facing a growing tide of trouble. It has been assaulted recently for its overly liberal privacy settings, causing a wave of people to quit the network. Moreover, Facebook has been strangely aggressive as of late towards certain groups like Boycott BP, which was mysteriously taken down yesterday. (It was later restored.)
This has prompted a slew of startup contenders like Diaspora that want to make a totally user-controlled peer-to-peer network that would put the power of privacy directly in the hands of the individual user.
Most doubt that any company, save Google, could actually take on Facebook, but everyone still wonders whether Google's arsenal of funds and its army of genius-IQ engineers are sufficient to stop the Facebook tide before it takes over the world (except of course India and Brazil where Google's Orkut social network is the dominant player).
This is a HOW question. There's no doubt that Google could come up with something awesome, but will it be awesome ENOUGH to get people to leave Facebook? My sincere hope is that Google is asking the WHY question, not the HOW question — WHY would anyone want to leave Facebook? It turns out there are two major reasons why people would indeed move to greener pastures, and if Google can exploit Facebook's exposed dual Achilles heels, I believe they will succeed.
Facebook's biggest problem stems from a poorly strategized development path. Because it has grown so fast and because so much of its product development effort has focused on opening up the social graph to third-party app developers, the company missed something very, very important ... the user experience. Businesses adore Facebook for its nifty advertising tools and easy access to consumer data, but that has come at a high price ... the alienation of Facebook users.
1. Concentric rings of privacy
The greatest weakness for Google to exploit is Facebook's total disregard of the user's need to segment their "friends." Facebook currently offers only three levels of privacy — stuff only your friends see, stuff friends of friends can see, and stuff all Facebook users can see. The list tool allows you to create private subsets of your friends, but it is far from intuitive and used by few Facebook members.
How many job terminations have resulted from someone in the HR department seeing a little too much from last night's party? Facebook horror stories are endemic of the network's failure to streamline the process of creating basic privacy levels. To be truly useful, the online social network of the future NEEDS to be modeled on natural social behavior. We all stand at the center of a series of "concentric rings" of privacy. All acquaintances are not "friends" and all friends are not "confidants."
Each person's inner circle may include just two or three people. The next level out may be 10-20 including family and good friends. In the outer ring ... we may have hundreds of acquaintances that we like and want to include in our lives without giving them access to the inner circles. This data needs to be attributed at the friend level (i.e. when you accept a friend you assign them to a certain privacy level). So our "best friends" automatically get to see everything. While our acquaintances, unbeknownst to them, are blocked from seeing certain images not meant for broader consumption.
At least three more rings need to be added to the "friends" zone:
This sounds simple, but it represents an enormous technological challenge. A whole new set of data needs to be assigned each time the user uploads a picture or wall post. From the user perspective it would look simple — nothing more than a checkbox — but that interface is something that few companies besides Google could tackle.
2. Publishing power
If you are like me and you regularly attempt to publish video or article links, you will have grown INCREDIBLY frustrated with Facebook's clunky publishing interface. Literally 30 percent of the time (I tracked it), I am unable to successfully publish a link that shows the thumbnail or video embed. It's a strange bug that I know Facebook is aware of, yet there has never been a permanent fix for it.
But that's a small problem compared to Facebook's inability to support the user in personalizing his self-presentation. Facebook is just not cool. That plain grey-blue palette works great for professional and collegiate matters, but if you are a band, artist, poet, or the creator of any sort of media that might garner a following, you're out of luck (unless you can afford a huge media buy). Nobody wants to see the return of those god-awful Myspace backgrounds with sunsets and unicorns, but a little customization would enable the user to take pride in the page as a work of self-expression, rather than an archive of things that happened.
Myspace, for all its flaws, was pretty good at fulfilling this need. They had decent tools to message and update your fans, you could customize the look of your page and decide what you wanted to feature, and you could promote a wide variety of media types specifically tailored to your followers.
What's astonishing is that for close to a year, Myspace just stared like a deer in Facebook's headlights as clunky, plain Jane Facebook siphoned off nearly all of its U.S. members. The innovation that allowed Facebook to vie for creatives (like bands and artists) was called "the Fan Page." Without it, individuals and brands with loyal followings would never have migrated to Facebook.
Facebook's recent decision to get rid of the Fan Page, an act that essentially discourages fan-based networks is almost as mysterious as Myspace's total inaction when it came to enhancing the platform to better serve its fan-based networks. It's now the "Like page" (for lack of a better term) and it has few of the features actually required by artists to properly communicate with "fans." All a page admin can do is send updates, and the updates have now been removed from the recipient's home page (you actually have to click into your inbox and then click the "Updates" folder inside) making updates all but meaningless. Facebook should allow more direct and personal communications between individuals and fan groups within the broader social network:
To sum up, there is a enormous unmet need right now for a social networking platform that provides powerful publishing tools for its most influential members — bands, artists, creatives — AND that allows segmentation of a user's circle of friends. If Google play its cards right, the social network of the future could be there for the taking.