It’s a lazy Sunday here in Los Angeles. Most people are at the beach, wallowing in their margaritas, volleyball games, and sun tans. I, taking post as the effervescent entrepreneur, however, opted for the coffee shop to do work instead. Not surprisingly, the trip has led me to a few curious questions regarding our future as a society in this evolving ‘social networking’ world.
Upon arriving at said coffee shop, I meandered to the counter, surprised by how utterly packed the place was. There wasn’t a seat in the house, at least on the inside, and I was deathly afraid of having to sit outside in the unforgiving heat. While waiting for my delicious Iced Cranberry Chai, I peaked around at the clientele, and I began to notice a thought trend that followed me to my table outside:
It’s eerily quiet here. Almost every single person has a computer or an iPad, and if they are one of the rare folks that do not, they have their nose buried in a book (people still buy those?). There is no talking, no introductions, no smiles, no wandering eyes. It’s almost as if someone literally superglued their eyeballs to the screen (or paper) in front of them.
Are we so engrossed in our digital worlds, that we literally do not want to exist in the physical one around us? I’ve been in many discussions with friends about this, who can’t even make it through a lunch or dinner without picking up their smart phone for a text or email (we’re all guilty, don’t even try to fight it). But what do the growth (and death) of popular social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, and the new Google+ show us about human interaction?
In case you don’t know or conveniently forgot, MySpace was the true beginning of social networking. In college, it was the only place for college bands to create a destination for themselves that didn’t cost you $10,000 (remember when a simple website cost that?), and was a great way for young college kids to find friends/dates. And then “The Facebook” came out. I was happily introduced by my geeky friends at Ivy League and Tech schools that were lucky enough to be part of the initial group of colleges allowed to join. Back then, it was something built by college students for college students, and it caught on like wildfire because of it.
(Author Note: If you’d like to read more about the real evolution of Facebook, I highly suggest you check out David Kirkpatrick’s “The Facebook Effect.” )
The caveat? Not only was it exclusive, unlike MySpace, but it was a way for you to list your classes, find your fellow classmates to study with, or to finally get an excuse to say hi to that cute boy you were to afraid to say hi to in person without the fear of rejection. It was an extension of everything that college stood for: socializing, parties, and education (sometimes). It was a way to extend your interactions with people you already knew, or to get access to the people you wanted to know. And what about MySpace? Well, they failed to innovate because they didn’t understand the human condition. People want to expand their world, and while meeting new people is cool–connecting with old friends or getting to know an acquaintance better is far cooler.
And as social networking has grown, so has the need to monetize it to make the VCs happy. There’s been a lot of debate on the appropriate way to go about this without offending the membership base. The reason Facebook’s advertising platform works is because it’s based on friend’s recommendation engines, on keywords you post about, and can be targeted to a specific demographic. MySpace, on the other hand, whores their advertising out to whoever will pay them more money, which is why they lost so many member numbers in the first place. You can’t alienate your audience, or they’ll leave you. That’s the lesson MySpace taught us.
Now, last week, Justin Timberlake put up some money to own a significant stake of MySpace. Can he turn it around? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I think that if he focuses on making it a destination for music instead of trying to make it compete with Facebook directly, he will be successful. And the reality is, he is an entertainer, he is a musician, and he knows the business of making things cool fairly well. Going back to the beginnings of Facebook, where it was a platform for college kids built by other college kids, the future looks bright for the Timberlake/MySpace creation. Justin Timberlake, however, also likes to sell out (have you seen his website lately? Try going there without an ad popping up in your face every five seconds, and I guarantee you won’t return again unless it’s for a damn good reason).
Regardless, this isn’t a battle between MySpace and Facebook anymore. It’s not even a battle between Google and Facebook. It’s the battle between our interactions, and their future. You want to know the reason why Goole+ has a chance at kicking Facebook’s proverbially ass? It already has users and products that are solutions to every aspect of a person’s life. Google Docs, Calendar, Gmail, Flickr, YouTube, Blogger. You name it, there’s a platform for you to use made by Google that you’ve already been use to for five to ten years. While Google+ certainly hasn’t worked out all of the kinks yet, nor has it even reached or perhaps even realized its own potential, given the right direction it could take over the way we do things entirely.
For instance, a dear friend of mine and I were “hanging out” in the “hang out” of Google+ yesterday. During our chat, I introduced him to one of my co-workers, and he, being a Microsoft employee, was jazzed that only 20 minutes earlier, he was also introduced to several new people through his other friends in various Hangouts. It was like being at a party without the awkwardness or the hangover in the morning. And these introductions were all from people he trusts.
(P.S. If you don’t know what Google Hangout is, check out this video. There’s also an interesting article about why Skype should fear Google Hangout, which is even more interesting considering Facebook just announced a partnership with Skype last week.)
So will Google+ kill Facebook? That depends. It depends on if Google is smart enough with the execution of its vision, if people really want the product, and if it makes things faster or easier. If Google were smart, though, they would find a way to integrate with Facebook. It’s funny that Mark Zuckerberg has the most friends on Google+, so maybe they’re already thinking in this direction. Regardless, it’d certainly make the takeover faster, and make the battle irrelevant. What would the world look like if Facebook and Google were partners? Frightening and exciting thought.
Regardless, though, this brings me back to the original musing that got me here in the first place. What do these things say about our future as a society, and about the way that we interact? Will we continue down this path of getting lost in our devices, or will we break free and remember what it feels to actually talk to one another. What about our children? They don’t even know a world where Facebook and cell phones don’t exist. Will they know how to have conversations with one another? We’ve already lost our handwriting, will we also lose our interpersonal skills?
Food for thought, what are yours?