When Facebook and Google+ Go to War

Nothing less than the future of the Internet is at stake.
Posted September 21, 2011

Mike Elgan

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Facebook and Google+ are now churning out updates, improvements and features at a breathless clip. It’s an all-out, gloves off scramble to claim the biggest prize of all: the future of the social Internet.

When Facebook and Google+ to war, who wins and who loses? The answer is that users win and Twitter loses.

Among combatants, Facebook is “winning,” mainly because it grew to massive proportions right when social networking went mainstream. You can’t argue with 800 million users, or whatever they’ve got. And they’re likely to keep growing.

But the current tsunami of updates broadly favors the underdog, Google+. Here’s why.

What’s Wrong with the Facebook Updates

Facebook has been rolling out changes at an unprecedented pace in the past week, with many more to come in the next few days that will transform Facebook into a media platform.

Many of these changes feel like me-too copycat features. For example, a new Subscribe feature breaks the longstanding “friend” concept, where both parties had to agree on the connection relationship.

Now, people can “subscribe,” which is like circling someone on Google+ or following someone on Twitter.

An improved “Friends” list gives even more Google+-like flexibility about who sees what.

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The new Facebook looks and functions a lot like Google+ and Twitter side-by-side. Down the middle, a wide lane gives you Google+-like posts and pictures. On the right, a narrow un-censored stream showing short versions of posts feels like Twitter.

The big difference is that Facebook’s notorious EdgeRank algorithm appears to be playing an even more central role in the new changes. The main feed is heavily EdgeRanked, with Facebook voodoo deciding what you see by default, and what you don’t, based on your relationship with the poster, activity by other users (Likes, comments, and others) and your past engagement with similar content.

It helps that a drop-down menu on the upper right of each post lets you affect future EdgeRank activity. For example, you can choose to get all content from the person who posted the item.

Still, algorithmic censorship is one of Facebook’s sole remaining functional differences. Both Twitter and Google+ display 100% of the posts from people followed or circled, while Facebook displays some unknown subset of those posts.

In general, there’s a great deal of confusion about the Facebook changes. Even grizzled technology veterans are publicly scratching their heads, and expressing exasperation. And a majority of users apparently dislike the changes. At post time, the blog Mashable found in a survey that 74% of respondents “hate it” and just 12% “love it.”

It helps to slot the Facebook changes into two categories. The first category could be called “Changes that make Facebook more like Google+.” These include subscriptions, news feed tweeks, friending options and other related changes. They also include bigger pictures and increased character limit on posts (from 500 to 5,000).

The second category could be called “Changes that make Facebook a media platform.” These include a new Wall Street Journal app, as well as expected integration with a host of services that enable the streaming and sharing of music, movies, TV shows and other content. These should be announced tomorrow (Thursday).

Both categories are problematic for the majority of Facebook users.

Facebook has succeeded in doing something Twitter has never been able to do, and Google+ may never do: Attract the non-geeky masses.

Facebook’s biggest attraction is that everybody is on it -- mom, cousin, grandma, old high school buddies. As a result of this broad appeal, the average Facebook user isn’t the social-media savvy uber nerd that predominates on Google+.

Most Facebook users just want to interact with family and friends. They don’t want to learn anything. They don’t want a more powerful platform. They don’t want Facebook to be more like Google+.


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Tags: Facebook, social networking, google+

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