Facebook and Google are at war. This is a power struggle like our generation has never seen, except perhaps the one ongoing between Apple and Microsoft. When it comes to social media, for me, Twitter has always played second fiddle to Facebook – and Google Plus isn’t even in the band. But there’s more at stake than social network popularity, to make this issue sound more like two high school cliques’ bickering than it already does; both corporations continue to develop new features that could put them ahead in major industries like shopping, travel, music, movies and news.
Facebook’s only power lies in its 800 million members – it’s not innovative or multi-useful like Google – and stepping outside that role will lose the faith of those members. Facebook seems to be acutely aware of this fact, and though it toes the line with its recent Spotify, Netflix and Washington Post partnerships it remains within bounds; music, videos and news are seamlessly incorporated into the conversations already taking place within its site, in ways that a “Facebook Documents” application or “Facebook Translate” would not.
Google, on the other hand, should be more worried. Google, as a business, is fun (see Time’s history of Google Doodles, including a recent tribute to Jim Henson, to back this up). Most people would consider the features developed by Google over the years to have diverse, convenient and valuable uses. However, Google as a whole is mostly serious. Not quite Charles Schwab serious (pre-”Talk to Chuck” campaign), but serious all the same.
The 1998 company’s more popular additions to its top-notch search engine have been Google Maps, Android software, Google Translate, Gmail and the Chrome browser – all just about as sensible and fun as my dad’s “driving shoes.” In contrast, one could argue that its most notable flop thus far has been its attempt at social networking with Google Plus. Google Plus has not yet served the purposes that Facebook has mastered: being all inclusive, offering information that its users want to know about their closest friends and acquaintances and providing features like photo-sharing to grease the wheels of these interactions.
Google Plus made its biggest mistake by networking through Gmail. Although convenient, since everything was happening under Google’s umbrella, Gmail isn’t really social. A person can communicate with friends, but also family members, co-workers and strangers, without any crossover between these groups of the information being shared. Google Plus connected users with all these people at once, so they were getting invitations to join from friends – as well as professors, classmates and grandparents. This inevitable lack of separation created an awkward pressure, where Google Plus was more like LinkedIn and Twitter trying to be Facebook all at once.
The anti-trust lawsuit brought by rival businesses against Google in the past week doesn’t hold much weight, especially since Google does not charge for the use of its services (something that makes both Facebook and Google exceptional). But this widely-publicized questioning over whether Google can be counted on to produce unbiased, relevant information to users should serve as a warning; the last thing a company, free or otherwise, needs is a faltering of consumer confidence.
Because of its highly addictive nature and ability to wend its way through the minutest intricacies of our lives, it would seem to follow that users would feel more threatened by Facebook than Google. However, there’s something about the social networking site that makes it far less Orwellian than the ambitious projects set up by Google – maybe the constant sight of our friends’ faces is subconsciously comforting. Or, more likely, it is Facebook’s ability to address that fear outright. It’s no secret to users that the company’s revenue comes from ads; we’ve noticed them. But targeting these ads more specifically to users through the “likes” feature comes off as more beneficial than creepy, since you get bothered less by marketing that doesn’t concern you.
Besides, anything’s better than the Farmville days, when real notifications were unfiltered and became peppered with random quiz invites or promotions for games. Facebook learned how to avoid this unwanted media on its site, and rather than harken back to its initial days of mega-simplicity, it is embracing the entrance of select businesses. Will recently-announced partnerships with Spotify, Netflix and Washington Post be good? Probably, since they are addressing these choices, instead of just slipping them in. That is, as long as the industry of journalism isn’t doomed, Spotify doesn’t become illegal and Netflix doesn’t go under from its unpopular split between video streaming and movies-by-mail. But Facebook’s involvement should hopefully stave off the impending fates of all three.
There’s no way around it: Google is the kid who does your economics homework, but when it comes to a social environment he just doesn’t fit in. Where Facebook and Google are powerful, they are highly distinct nonetheless. Facebook is fun, honest and entertaining – everything we ever wanted from a social networking site, and more – and its new features provide more of what we already have come to love. Google would do well to ensure that the features it introduces from here on out are supplementing the work users are already doing with it, instead of trying to be something it’s not.
The cutesy search engine needs to realize that, while being an equally-influential and more-innovative entity, it has much to learn from Facebook about respecting and understanding its clientele – especially since the two rivals are so fiscally dependent on users’ trust and regard.
Check out our multimedia coverage of the Madison Facebook Hackathon at http://badgerherald.com/news/2011/09/24/video_facebook_hacka.php.