An Evangelist Makes the Case for Google+
Guy Kawasaki, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor who first rose to notoriety as chief evangelist for Apple back in the early days of the Macintosh, has found something new to evangelize. He’s just published an e-book about Google+ called What the Plus: Google+ for the Rest of Us. At a trim 180 pages, including lots of screen shots, it’s a fast and easy read, and it’s the best compilation of tips and tricks for using Google’s social sharing system you are likely to find.
Kawasaki’s timing is excellent. It was conceivable, early on, that Google+ would flop the way earlier social products from Google did (think Google Buzz and Google Wave). But that moment has passed. Now Google+ is a force to be reckoned with—and if you’re like me, you’ve been puzzling for a while over whether and how to work it into your existing social media routine. Kawasaki has some great answers to that question, which I’ll sum up in a moment.
But first, I want to back up and look at the bigger picture here. How did Google get to where it is today? Certainly not by conceiving new products from scratch. There were search engines before Larry Page and Sergey Brin came up with Page Rank, the algorithm that finally made sense of the Web by measuring the strength of connections between pages. Targeted, keyword-based, pay-per-click advertising, the business that made Page and Brin multibillionaires, was first developed by Overture and Yahoo, then copied and perfected by Google. There were plenty of mobile operating systems on the market before Google put its weight behind Android; plenty of browsers before Chrome; plenty of laptops before Chromebooks; and so on.
For all its Googley zaniness, in other words, Google isn’t really about inventing things. The company is a massive engine for applying pure power—both brain power and computing power—to hard problems, and coming up with solutions that often (but not always) work better than existing alternatives. It’s like the old advertising slogan from the chemical company BASF: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”
Which brings us back to Google+ (the name is pronounced, and sometimes written, as Google Plus, but I’ll stick with the company’s spelling, whose geekiness is part of the point). Before 2011, the world already had a perfectly serviceable social networking platform—it’s called Facebook. But Google’s engineers saw how much time people were spending there and decided they could come up with something better.
Under the hood, after all, Facebook is just a bunch of servers and software algorithms. And if you work at Google, then a big part of your identity revolves around being the smartest person in the room when it comes to servers and algorithms. So it would have been shocking if Google+, which opened to beta users last June and to the general public in September, had not matched or outperformed Facebook feature by feature. On a technical level, it is unquestionably a better system than Facebook for connecting with people and sharing stuff, for reasons Kawasaki enumerates at length. It’s got many novel features, such as the “circles” concept, that Mark Zuckerberg might copy if he were starting over and didn’t have an eight-year-old legacy system and the habits of 800 million users to deal with.
But whether any of that matters to the average Internet user is a very different question. One analyst, Paul Allen, estimated that Google+ had 100 million members as of early February—an impressive number, but still 700 million behind Facebook. To take the lead away from Zuckerberg, any new social networking system would need to outdo Facebook not just on features, but on fun. And understanding what makes new technologies delightful to use has always been Google’s weak point. I’d argue that it’s the main reason Android, which is in many ways a more flexible and powerful mobile operating system, hasn’t overshadowed Apple’s iOS. At the risk of over-generalizing, Google is full of people who are better at thinking than feeling. (To get all Myers-Briggs about it: Google has a huge preponderance of INTJs, when what you really need to build great consumer products is a mix of INTJs, ENTPs, and ESFPs.)
So, is it really possible that Google has gotten it right this time? Kawasaki admits at the beginning of What the Plus that “I need another social-media service like I need more e-mail or my dog to throw up on the carpet.” But he goes on to argue that Google+ is so good—combining superior, well-conceived features with a generous and creative crowd of early adopters—that it qualifies as truly “enchanting.” (For Kawasaki, that’s a word with a very specific meaning; see my March 2011 review of his book Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions.) Kawasaki makes his reason for falling in love with Google+ pretty clear: not only does it fit his own needs better than Facebook or Twitter, but it’s the underdog in the social media contest. “Macintosh was a better computer, and many people didn’t ‘get it,’” he writes. “Now Google+ is a better social network, and many people don’t get it, either.”
I won’t try to summarize Kawasaki’s whole book—it’s so compact that you really should just go read it yourself. But here’s a rundown of the big things that make Kawasaki so enthusiastic about Google+.
Google+ fills a new niche in social networking. If Twitter is about sharing perspectives, and Facebook is about following people, then Google+ is great for sharing your passions, even if it’s with people you don’t know.
Google+ has features that Facebook just doesn’t. Among other things, it lets you share longer posts; edit your posts after you’ve published them; show more pictures on your profile page; hang out in video conferences with up to nine other people; exert more control over who sees your posts and whose posts you see; and visualize how your posts are spreading through the network.
Conversations on Google+ tend to be longer, more thoughtful, and less vituperative than those on other networks. “The quality, breadth, and depth of Google+ comments compared to Twitter and Facebook blow me away,” Kawasaki writes. “This level of interaction separates Google+ from those other services, and it’s the reason Robert Scoble and thousands of other early adopters love Google+.”
Google+ is great for marketers. Because Google now integrates social connections into the results people get in traditional searches, being active on Google+ is one way to influence people and steer them toward your blog, your company site, or other content. Kawasaki says we’re now in the era of “WYKC-WYG” or “who you know changes what you get”—a reality that should “bring a smile to the face of every marketer.”
Google+ will only get better, since Google is big, powerful, and serious about social media. With “infinite money and talent” (Kawasaki’s words) and a lot to lose if Facebook were to displace it as the main way people discover new things on the Web, the company is going to keep working at social networking until it wins.
The bulk of What the Plus is a step-by-step guide to understanding Google+ and being smart about using it. There are chapters on how circles work, how to write posts that will attract comments and shares, how to gain more followers, and how to make your Google+ profile more enchanting (I’ve already applied some of Kawasaki’s suggestions to my own profile). There’s even a guest chapter on using the great photo-sharing options on Google+ from Tokyo-based photographer Dave Powell, and a guest chapter on overcoming the Google+ gender gap (the user base is heavily skewed toward males) from Lynette Young, the curator of the Women of Google+ page. Take the time to read and implement a few of Kawasaki’s tips, and you’re guaranteed to get more out of Google+, both personally and professionally.
But that still leaves the big question unanswered. Is Google+ so enchanting that it will woo hundreds of millions of people away from Facebook? I’m not convinced that it is. For all its amazing features, the service is missing a few of the fuzzier elements that, at least to me, would inspire true devotion. The main one is what I’ll call warmth. Google+ just doesn’t feel like a place where I want to hang out. Like most of Google’s products, it’s got a Spartan, utilitarian atmosphere, embodied in everything from its cryptic toolbar icons to its stark white background to its dominant typeface—the industrial-feeling Arial/Helvetica. One person’s profile feels pretty much like every other’s, except for the thumbnail images. Maybe the whole thing just reminds me too much of Gmail—which is an extremely useful tool, but one I want to spend as little time as possible using.
All this may sound really touchy-feely—but that’s exactly my point. Facebook feels more like a personal scrapbook, especially after the recent introduction of Timeline, whereas Google+ feels more like an infinite comment stream. Which one sounds more inviting to you?
Alas, if you’re interested in social media mainly as a tool for promoting your own content, company, ideas, or products (as I confess I am), you can’t worry too much about which social network feels more homey. You have to grok Google+, just as you have to understand Twitter and Facebook. Which is why Kawasaki’s book will be so helpful to many people. Go check it out—then circle back (pun intended) with your own comments, either here or on Xconomy’s Google+ page.