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.
Google Spaces’ Fatal Flaw: It Requires Too Much Mental Energy
Google Photos is comparable to Spaces, according to Bradley Horowitz, Google’s vice president of streams, photos and sharing, who answered questions in a Space I created to talk about Google Spaces.
Google Photos replaces social networking products with a feature. Instead of sharing personal photos on a social product like Facebook, you share them using the sharing feature of Google Photos.
Google Spaces replaces social media with a feature. Instead of sharing articles, other people’s photos or links to any Web content on a social product like Facebook, you share them in an ad-hoc “Space” that is not part of a social product.
To illustrate my point, let’s contrast one Facebook way and one Google Spaces way to share an article on your phone.
One way to share on Facebook is that you start with Google Search, find the article, copy the link, open the Facebook app, create a new post and paste in the link, then talk about it on Facebook.
One way to share with Google Spaces is to start with Spaces, using the mobile app to do the Google Search. When you find it, you press the big button, designate which Space it goes in (or create a new one). Then you share by tapping on a button to any site or via any medium, including email. The recipients click on the link, coming back to the Space you created. In this scenario, Spaces is really a feature of Google Search, with the Spaces app actually being an alternative Google Search app with social sharing as a feature.
Similarly, Google’s Spaces Chrome extension adds a social feature to your browser. You simply click on the Spaces button to share the current tab.
Spaces looks like a product, but it’s really a version of Google Search and Chrome with social added as a feature.
I expect Spaces to be integrated with all kinds of Google sites and apps to add social as a feature so people don’t have to use a social product like Facebook.
Here Comes the Judo
Spaces allows Google to escape the surly bonds of the network effect.
On social products, a company is expected to provide access to other users. The more users are on a network, the more new users want to be on that network. That’s the network effect.
Google tried to compete against Facebook by creating a superior social networking product: Google+, but Google was defeated by the network effect because it was late to the game.
With Spaces, there is no network effect, er, in effect. Google provides no users. Nobody is “on” Spaces. Nobody can call Spaces a “ghost town” because there’s no town.
You don’t need a Google+ account to use Spaces. You don’t even need a Google password to read content on Spaces you’ve been invited to. (You do need a regular Google password to comment, though.)
Spaces are potentially ephemeral, too. For example, you can delete any Space you create and all comments die with it. You can pull the ladder up at any time by rescinding the share link. When you do that, the existing participants can continue participating, but nobody new can join the conversation. Later, you can create a new link and invite new people again. You can also, of course, keep conversations private by sharing privately.
As a bonus, Spaces unifies your conversations. The “Activity” stream shows any activity on all your Spaces. On the mobile app, the “Activity” stream updates automagically, which is one of my favorite features.
Google Spaces’ Fatal Flaw: It Requires Too Much Mental Energy
The Search function lets you search all your Spaces at once. As you might expect, coming from Google, the search feature is great.
Google will be hyping Spaces at its Google I/O developers conference this week, creating an individual Space for each session.
What’s Wrong With Spaces
The biggest flaw in Spaces is the same flaw that has existed in every Google social endeavor to date: It requires too much mental energy. The cognitive load is just too high.
Users generally have no idea why they love one social service and hate another. The answer usually has something to do with cognitive load. Most social sites and apps either feel like a vacation or like work.
Twitter, for example, feels like a vacation. You can easily skim across the short tweets, or ignore them altogether. By simply glancing at Twitter, or using a third-party app that auto-scrolls Twitter, you get a sense of whether you want to explore further or simply remain satisfied with the content of the tweets themselves. Twitter is easy.
Facebook feels like a vacation because most of the News Feed content is fluff. It’s mostly personal photos of people having fun, viral memes or goofy videos. Facebook’s algorithms block the majority of posts from reaching your News Feed, leaving you with the easy, breezy stuff. Facebook is easy.
Google social sites are never easy. Buzz and Wave were mentally taxing.
I’m a huge fan of Google+, but even Google+ feels more like work and less like a vacation.
With Google+, newbies feel confused about where everybody is. When more experienced users follow a large number of people, the default stream is a massive wall of complex content—complex because of the shifting subject matter from one post to the next, complex because half the posts are in foreign languages, or complex because people tend to have long, detailed, technical or very serious conversations.
With Google+, users also are overwhelmed by streams, Circles, Collections and Communities. So an average user might have the default stream, the family stream, the friends stream, a dozen more streams, a dozen Collections, a few dozen communities. It’s overwhelming.
High-bandwidth brainiacs love Google+, but we’re a tiny minority. And even for us fans, Google+ is no vacation.
Spaces should feel easy, but it doesn’t. The reason is that the “Activity” stream truncates.
Here are three items in my current “Activity” stream:
–It’s using Hangouts for …
–Good to know that (relatively)…
–Not at all. This is a Google Product. Separate …
An “Activity” stream containing truncated sentences kills any hope of users loving Spaces.
If you want to know what the truncated sentences say, you would have to click to find out, but you won’t click because half-sentences don’t draw you in. They push you away.
Truncated sentences cause confusion, anxiety and mental work. Your brain needs to make sense of what’s in front of you, but the Spaces “Activity” stream gives you incomplete information. It’s like listening to one side of a phone call when someone is talking on the phone nearby. It’s irritating and mentally taxing. (The notification view in Google+ is unusable for the same reason.)
The mobile app is even worse. The “Activity” stream there shows you not only comments, but the post being commented upon. And they’re both often truncated.
The simple solution is for Google to add a “headline” field, limited in size to the size of an “Activity” stream item. Users could post only the “headline,” or a “headline” plus the rest of their content. Either way, users would be forced to be concise and coherent with the words that will appear in the “Activity” stream.
The social-as-a-feature strategy is perfect. But for now, Spaces is yet another mentally taxing social effort that has no hope of competing against the easy ones.