Rumour has it Google is launching yet another bid to snap up Twitter, only months after an alleged takeover attempt in January. This is the latest in a continued courtship. Way back in February 2011, the blogosphere was alight with murmurs that Google and Facebook had held takeover talks with Twitter for a cool $10 billion. But with 12 billion monthly searches and a 50% share of all internet users, why would Google concern itself with a microblogging site only a fraction of its size?
The answer, of course, is social. In an interview with Bloomberg, Google chairman Eric Schmidt admitted that his biggest mistake was “not anticipating the rise of the social networking phenomenon.” He added, “It’s not a mistake we’re going to make again.” But the search engine giant has already dipped its toes in the notoriously stormy social media ocean. In 2004, it launched the social media platform Orkut, which was quickly overshadowed by the rise of Facebook. Next up was Jaiku, a micro-blogging site similar in style to Twitter – so similar, in fact, that Twitter quickly gobbled up market share. In 2010, sticking to the old adage ‘if you don’t succeed…,’ Google launched Buzz, which created individual social networks based on a user’s email recipient database. It looked like a good idea on paper, but hit a wall soon after launch when the US Federal Trade Commission took action over complaints of privacy violations.
So far so bad, but it wasn’t until the launch of Google+ that Google really backed themselves into a corner with users. All 425 million Gmail users were automatically signed up to the platform, which allows you to create content-sharing ‘circles’ with contacts. Many people found Google+ clunky, taxing and completely unnecessary. Despite in theory having millions of users, the platform has never gained traction and has become something of an in-joke in social media circles (pun intended).
The failure of Google+ illustrates the importance of users being given space to create their own organic networks, rather than have these imposed upon them. When creating a Facebook account, you’ve been given a quick and easy platform on which to share your world with the people you choose. The big mistake Google made was to force networks on people, based on cold, complicated algorithms. It not only felt like an invasion of privacy, but inauthentic and artificial.
From Bebo to Myspace, Reddit to Ello, hundreds of social media platforms have come and gone in the last decade. But only two have only really taken off – Twitter and Facebook. What’s their secret? Despite having a wealth of data at their fingertips, why is Google still floundering when it comes to social?
A key part of the answer is the network effect. The growth in value of certain products is intrinsically linked to the size of their customer base. Take the telephone, for example. It only became a useful, sought-after product once a critical mass of people had access to it. At the outset, the telephone was a gimmick that linked just a handful of other people in the know. In time, the capacity to connect with millions of people using just a few digits became an essential; simply because everyone else was at it.
Google is the classic example of this in the online world. Initially taking market share from Yahoo! simply because its search algorithm was more effective, better information was then made available to users as the user base grew. Within a few short years, Google was the dominant search engine, far outstripping its older rivals.
The network effect was also behind Facebook’s decision to buy Instagram for $2 billion in 2012. The picture sharing platform was, at the time, seen as massively overvalued. After all, it only had 13 employees and was making no profit, but what Facebook was really buying was membership and scale rather than a stream of income. Instagram was gaining a reputation as the Next Big Thing.
We don’t make all our decisions in isolation. If everyone around us is using a particular social network, we’ll take a look too, just to fit in. Until Google can work out how to get users excited about a social network of their own, they will keep trying and failing to take market share. As the success of Facebook and Twitter have shown, the mass market for social media platforms requires a certain level of standardisation, much as PC and Mac have standardised our office environments.
So, what will be the Next Big Thing in social media? Perhaps there isn’t one. The Next Big Thing is more likely to lie beyond social than in it. And just as Eric Schmidt failed to anticipate the rise of social media, might the next stage of the digital revolution be a wake up call to Mark Zuckerberg?