Most readers know that I’ve been tracking Google Trends data on Facebook for years. Now on January 1 2012 It seems pretty obviously that in the international aggregate this was the year that Facebook finally hit saturation in terms of “mindshare.”
But there are interesting international differences.
Tyson Balcomb quit Facebook after a chance encounter on an elevator. He found himself standing next to a woman he had never met — yet through Facebook he knew what her older brother looked like, that she was from a tiny island off the coast of Washington and that she had recently visited the Space Needle in Seattle.
“I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” said Mr. Balcomb, a pre-med student in Oregon who had some real-life friends in common with the woman. “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.”
Is this really novel? Haven’t you heard all about people on some occasions and just happened never to run into them? I think the big deal is confusing social networking technologies as a qualitative difference when they’re quantitative. They extend, they don’t transform. And it isn’t as if Facebook is special. You can find all sorts of things about Tyson Balcomb online.
Slate has an interesting retrospective on why Second Life never fulfilled the hype. My own caution was rooted in an argument from a tech journalist who pointed out that the exact same things stated about Second Life were once stated about MUDs. He actually simply repeated quotes from stories in the early to mid-1990s and compared them to those in 2006 to illustrate how the same passages were being recycled again. He knew about the power of the hype, because he participated in the first wave before it faded. Of course Second Life was much more sophisticated than any MUD,but it struck me that when the same reasoning is applied to a more perfected version of the phenomenon the same outcome may ensue.
In other news, Facebook’s plateau continues….
This doesn’t mean that we should stop socializing on the web. But it does suggest that we reconsider the purpose of our online networks. For too long, we’ve imagined technology as a potential substitute for our analog life, as if the phone or Google+ might let us avoid the hassle of getting together in person.
But that won’t happen anytime soon: There is simply too much value in face-to-face contact, in all the body language and implicit information that doesn’t translate to the Internet. (As Mr. Glaeser notes, “Millions of years of evolution have made us into machines for learning from the people next to us.”) Perhaps that’s why Google+ traffic is already declining and the number of American Facebook users has contracted in recent months.
These limitations suggest that the winner of the social network wars won’t be the network that feels the most realistic. Instead of being a substitute for old-fashioned socializing, this network will focus on becoming a better supplement, amplifying the advantages of talking in person.
For years now, we’ve been searching for a technological cure for the inefficiencies of offline interaction. It would be so convenient, after all, if we didn’t have to travel to conferences or commute to the office or meet up with friends. But those inefficiencies are necessary. We can’t fix them because they aren’t broken.
I am only being added to Google+ “circles” at a clip of half a dozen per day. This is off the peak of nearly 20 or so per day a little over a week ago. I’m now at nearly 500 people in my Google circles, though only 5 were individuals whom I added proactively. I honestly have no idea who 2/3 of these people are, though it seems that most of them know me through my blogs. About ~75 people I know rather well, though fewer than 50 are people who I’ve met in real life (many of these only once or twice). In contrast on Facebook there are hundreds of people I’ve met and known and know in real life. Very few of my college or high school friends have “added me” to their circles. In contrast, the people who I am socially engaged with currently have added me. It’s like Google+ is a vast and shallow circle extending outward into my present social space, both explicit (people I know) and implicit (those who know me through my web presence). In contrast Facebook has more historical depth. Though it’s been around a lot longer too, so the comparison isn’t fair.
Over the past few weeks I’ve seen several media stories profiling the rise of Google+ by noting that hoopla also greeted Google Wave and Google Buzz before their expiration as “It” technologies. This caveat was probably more true for Google Wave, which heralded the revolution which no one seemed anxious for (“what if we designed email now?!?!?!”). Buzz was a public relations disaster from its inception. When I first posted on Google+ I asserted that it was not in the same category as Wave or Buzz, and that was in a good way. By that, I meant that taking Google+ for a test drive I thought I’d stick around for at least a bit. I didn’t get that sense with Wave, and proactively shut down Buzz in my Gmail account. But that’s an N of 1, me. Over the past few weeks though friends have been joining Google+, and real conversations have been starting. I’ve consciously avoided adding anyone to my Google+ circle proactively, rather I have been reciprocally adding them. I’m at 300+ now. Right now the people in my circles are much closer in profile to my twitter account than my Facebook. That’s probably not typical, as I am a quasi-public individual (looking at who I share in common with those I’m adding to my circles it seems that some of my journalist friends and acquaintances are replicating their twitter followings as well, and that’s how people are finding me).
In any case, I have some non-anecdotal data that Google+ is not replicating the paths of Wave of Buzz. Google Trends. It’s early yet, so I don’t think that Google+ has “peaked” in terms of news or search by any means (if it’s successful), but it’s already surpassed the other two offerings:
This is great. At a minimum Google+ could become like the Chrome browser. It might not attain a dominant market share position (though Chrome already has a higher share than IE on this site, and others, with a tech-savvy audience), but it could push the edge of innovation. I don’t have a problem with Facebook, but with the collapse of MySpace years ago it has had a de facto monopoly in the general social networking space.
Finally, an anecdatum: a friend noticed that six of his contacts deactivated their Facebook accounts in the past few days. He didn’t know why, but there’s a high probability that these may be the types who just want to start over like Ezra Klein suggested.
… First, I don’t know whom the company thinks it’s kidding; Google+ is obviously a direct competitor to Facebook. Given the large overlap in functionality, I can’t imagine that many people will use Google+ and Facebook simultaneously. For most of us, it will be one or the other. Google+’s success, then, will rest in large part on Google’s ability to convince people to ditch Facebook for the new site. For that, Google+ will have to offer some compelling view of social networking that’s substantially different from what’s available on Facebook. And that’s where Google+ baffles me. What is so compelling about Google+ that I can’t currently get on Facebook or Twitter? Or Gmail, for that matter? At the moment, I can’t tell….
But circles are nothing new. Facebook has offered several ways to break your network into smaller chunks for many years now, and it has worked constantly to refine them. And you know what? Almost no one uses those features. Only 5 percent of Facebookers keep “Lists,” Facebook’s first attempt for people to categorize their friends. Recognizing that “Lists” weren’t great, last year the site unveiled a new way to manage your friends, called “Groups.” I was optimistic that “Groups” would help to compartmentalize Facebook, but from what I can tell, few people use that feature, either.
Since Google+ is not “prime time” I’m not going to judge it too much. The interface feels a lot zippier and more fluid than Facebook’s, but that might just be because there are hundreds of millions of people using Facebook. Unlike Manjoo I do think that the idea of “circles” is not without merit. I tried Facebook’s Lists, and it just plain didn’t work the way it was supposed to work, so I gave up. Right now I, along with others, slice and dice my online voice across different platforms. twitter for public interaction, Facebook for semi-public interaction.
When you have friends you know through science blogging, transhumanism, right-wing politics, high school, not to mention cousins who were raised in the Tablighi subculture, Facebook’s one-size-fits-all tendency of throwing them into a big pot has been kind of suboptimal. Then again, most people probably don’t manifest as much dilettantism as I do, leading them to have a much more well “sorted” social set.
I will say though that Google+ doesn’t seem as patently useless as Wave and Buzz were. But if you haven’t gotten an invite, you aren’t missing out on much. There is no way this should warrant the hysteria which was the norm when Gmail first rolled out and required invites.
BusinessWeek‘s The Rise and Inglorious Fall of Myspace is a compelling read. But a huge piece of the puzzle which I thought was omitted was that Myspace was incubated in the short term bottom-feeder world to begin with, so the later fixation on revenue now rather than a long term vision may simply have been part of its original DNA. See this Planet Money podcast, MySpace Was Born Of Total Ignorance. Also Porn And Spyware, for what I’m talking about. As it is in the BusinessWeek piece Chris DeWolfe just tries to blame News Corp. Remember that DeWolfe and Tom Anderson sold out to Rupert Murdoch, while Mark Zuckerberg was uninterested in an immediate cash windfall. As far as the long term impact of Myspace I notice that the Urban Dictionary entry for ‘myspace angle’ is still more fleshed out than ‘facebook angle’, so the word “myspace” might still get preserved in this manner. In this way Myspace may resemble the audio cassette, which is still haunting our culture as the “mixtape”. Not surprisingly some young people are totally unaware that the tape portion actually refers to cassette tapes, since that technology was before their time.
Three weeks ago I observed that Google trend data indicated that Facebook had finally plateaued in its growth in the USA. Today a story on data from Inside Facebook:
Facebook just lost a few faces. Six million users in the U.S. ditched their Facebook accounts last month. And the number of people using the site during the month of May also fell in Canada, Russia and the U.K. That’s according to new data from a company called Inside Facebook.
According to their data June 1st 2010 to June 1st 2011 Facebook grew ~20% in the USA, vs ~50% worldwide. There’s lots of room for growth in the rest of the world, but it may be that like the internet overall Facebook has hit its saturation point in the developed English speaking world. And I’m pretty happy with that. I get a lot fewer requests for annoying apps like “Mafia Wars.” Now that the novelty has worn off people are using the “social graph” tools of Facebook as background utilities (and since I have a set of “Facebook friends” who use twitter, I suspect that that’s cannibalizing some of the stuff that would otherwise be posted to Facebook).
I’ve been using Google Trends to track the rise of Facebook and the fall of MySpace for years. To my surprise Facebook has kept ascending up the Google search traffic for years past when I thought it would hit diminishing marginal returns of mind-share (I assumed it would level off in 2008). But it looks like it has finally reached a “mature” phase in 2011. First, let’s compare Facebook, Myspace, and Google in 2008. The following is search traffic on Google for the whole world….
Now for the past 12 months….
That seems to be what John Dvorak is saying, Why I Don’t Use Facebook:
Which begs the question as to why anyone would use Facebook when it is essentially AOL done right? The fastest growing group on Facebook are people in their 70′s. Oldsters are flocking to Facebook the way they once did with AOL. Facebook is a simple system for the masses that do not really care about technology and do not want to learn anything new except something easy like Facebook.
Whenever someone tells me to check out something on Facebook, I recall the heyday of AOL with its keywords. “Go to the Internet at www.blah.com or AOL keyword: blah.” This was a common comment on the nightly news or in magazines. The AOL keyword is replaced by the Facebook page name.
There is no reason for anyone with any chops online to be remotely involved with Facebook, except to peruse it for lost relatives. So, next time you log on, remember it’s really AOL with a different layout.
Welcome to the past.
In broad qualitative strokes this seems about right. I’ve been hearing the Facebook-is-AOL analogy for years, and there are obvious similarities. I do have a Facebook page, but I don’t use it for much. If I want to say something that’s not substantial enough for a blog post, off to twitter. If I want to throw a few thousand words at a few thousand people, well, you know where I’m going to go with that. And of course, there’s razib.com if someone wants to find/contact me.
A tale of three firms via Google Trends. I’ve been checking in on Facebook’s numbers in Google Trends for years to see if I can see evidence of plateauing. Not quite yet. Interestingly all three companies were drawing similar search traffic on Google at the end of 2008, after which Myspace began its long descent, while Facebook had an inverted trajectory, and Yahoo! kept muddling along….
David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, has a breathless take on the rise of Facebook and its impending assault on Google in The Daily Beast. There’s a lot of hyperbole and Facebook-cheering throughout the piece, but this bold but unsupported assertion caught my attention:
Email is, as we all know, a horribly broken system. It is what almost all of us lean on the most heavily to get our work done. Yet we all know it is inefficient and unwieldy. Now Facebook’s innovations aim to use its so-called “social graph,” the set of relationships you have with another user, to remake daily electronic communication.
TechCrunch is reporting on Facebook’s new “modern messaging system”. The first few comments immediately telegraphed my first impression: is this Facebook’s Google Wave? Interesting then to see if Facebook can make this work. If it can’t, then score one for the proposition that people don’t want a seamless integration of various tools which emerged in the 1990s and have distinctive roles today in the information ecology (IM, email, message boards, etc.). If Facebook succeeds perhaps it goes to show the importance of timing, execution and marketing. On the other hand, Mashable makes MMS sound just like a souped-up version of SMS texting, and so far less ambitious in scope than Wave ever was. Email is more formal, which is why it can be very useful in some situations. Facebook is more convenient for getting in touch with your college roommate.
Ruchira Paul has her own reaction to Zadie Smith’s pretentious review of The Social Network. One of the aspects of Smith’s review which Ruchira focuses upon is her concern about the extinction of the “private person.” I have mooted this issue before, but I think it might be worthwhile to resurrect an old hobby-horse of mine: is privacy as we understand it in the “modern age” simply a function of the transient gap between information technology and mass society? In other words, for most of human history we lived in small bands or in modest villages. These were worlds where everyone was in everyone else’s business. There was very little privacy because the information technology was well suited to the scale of such societies. That “technology” being our own innate psychology and verbal capacities. With the rise of stratified cultures elites could withdraw into their own castles, manses and courtyards, veiled away from the unwashed masses. A shift toward urbanization, and greater anonymity made possible by the rise of the mega-city within the last few centuries, has allowed the common citizen to also become more of a stranger to their neighbors. It is far easier to shed “baggage” by simply moving to a place where everyone doesn’t know your name.
Jonah Lehrer (a.k.a. the “boy-king of the neuroscience blogosphere”) has a mild and gentlemanly rejoinder to Zadie Smith essay which verges on moral panic about the Facebook phenomenon. Back in 2000 I remember listening to literary critics rave about Smith’s White Teeth. I’m a nerd, and when I read fiction it tends to be “speculative fiction.” But I decided check out White Teeth. It was OK, though I didn’t see what the big fuss was about. But then I suspect I lack some cognitive module which allows for the appreciation of “literary fiction.” Interestingly in the years which have followed a few people who have come to know me have analogized me to to the character in the novel named Magid. In any case in response to Smith’s overly grand panic, I would point out three things:
1) Facebook isn’t that big of a deal
3) The worries about the distortions which information technology impose upon humans goes back to the invention of the alphabet, which democratized literacy beyond the scribal castes, and purportedly was going to make memory obsolete (the printing press was actually the death knell of mnemonic techniques)
On the last point, many ancient letter writers behaved as if they were posting on a Facebook wall. Personal correspondence of prominent individuals were written with the expectation that they would be copied and circulated, and sometimes even read aloud. Memoirs and diaries were written in part to burnish reputations, and preserve for posterity one’s recollections. This is one reason that the letters of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus are apparently so boring. Everything new is old. Sort of.
The other day NPR’s Planet Money quipped that the gold bubble was going to burst soon, as they’d decided to buy gold. Well, perhaps Facebook is nearing its bursting point…I created a Gene Expression fan page. I don’t have a good sense of the great utility of this sort of thing…you can after all find the two GNXP weblogs on the world wide web pretty easily. And I feed the blog posts to two twitter accounts. I can see the value-add of Facebook’s selective semi-permeability when it comes to the “social graph”, but less so for websites which have a robust presence on the internet. GNXP in some form has been around for over 8 years. I can’t but help feel that this is a flashier Geocities fan page.
Also, it has a URL that’s easy to remember: http://www.facebook.com/GeneExpression