Google's new attempt at a social app will fail because the company hasn't learned from past mistakes.
Google this week introduced Spaces, which is not quite a social network and not really a messaging app. Spaces is a Googly cross between Slack and Snapchat, available from an app on iOS and Android, a Chrome extension and online at spaces.google.com.
Like Slack and Snapchat, Spaces is not a place for big celebrities, big social media stars or big conversations involving hundreds or thousands of people. It's better for small groups of between three and 100.
Google already has a social network (Google+) and a messaging app (Hangouts). So why Spaces? The reasons: the decline of social networking and the rise of Facebook.
Let's get clear on our terms.
Social networking entails "following" people and exchanging personal information about one's family, work, life, travel and so on. And pictures of your cat. When Google launched Google+ in 2011, social networking was on the rise.
Social media, on the other hand, is when you share memes, articles, photos and videos taken by someone else—pictures of someone else's cat—and other content that is not about your own life.
At some point in the last two years, social networking as a percentage of time spent online peaked and started to crash. At the same time, engagement in social media continued to soar.
Facebook got huge by hitching its fortunes to the rise of social networking over the past decade. But now that social networking is declining, Facebook is boosting social media—adding features like Instant Articles and favoring videos in its algorithms, as well as hiring a team of editors to curate "Trending Topics."
Facebook has famously thrived in the transition from desktop to mobile. And they're also thriving in the transition from social networking to social media.
Google got into social networking late in the game—too late to catch up. When Facebook users ventured away from Facebook to try Google+, they found their existing communities absent. So users (and journalists) declared it a "ghost town" and went back to Facebook.
Now, nobody is on Google+ because nobody is on Google+, and everybody is on Facebook because everybody is on Facebook.
(Google+ does actually have a thriving, loyal and enthusiastic following, but the numbers are insignificant compared to Facebook.)
Meanwhile, people are generally souring on big social sites like Facebook in favor of messaging apps like Snapchat, Slack, WhatsApp and so on. (That's why Facebook bought WhatsApp, for example.)
So Google's latest response to the Facebook problem is Spaces. Spaces represents judo against Facebook's strong kung fu.
Product or Feature?
Facebook's proposition has always been that social is a product.
But Google's strategy to clobber Facebook is the opposite proposition: Social is a feature.
In fact, this is the strategy stated by then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt before 2011. The idea was to build social as a feature into every Google product.
Then, suddenly, Google reversed that strategy to launch Google+. Between 2011 and 2014, Google worked to put everything into social—every Google product, from YouTube to the Play Store—was to be integrated into the social product, Google+.
Since 2014, Google has been backtracking and working, not to put everything into social, but to put social into everything. The most recent examples are as follows:
--Google is rolling out "native sharing" in YouTube.
--Google recently added comments on shared albums in Google Photos.