Google+ at 3, subtract Facebook complaints
Google+ turns three years old on Saturday, a birthday the service is celebrating with little fanfare (if at all).
Google didn't make any major announcements or release any special features to commemorate the moment. Google+ didn't even rate an appearance at Google I/O, the company's biggest tech conference, which wrapped up on Thursday.
Google, for whatever reason, seems to be content to let the event pass. The birthday is just happening: another year older, another year wiser. That's why I believe Google+ deserves a special gift from the rest of us: let's stop comparing it to Facebook.
For three years, we've been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Every update from Google+ - user figures, new products or design changes - seems to prompt journalists to compare that update in some way to the world's largest social network. Rarely does Google+ win that comparison.
Part of the problem is our perception of Google+. We may think of it as a traditional social network, a place where you share what you had for breakfast, or post pictures of your new baby. The truth is more complicated than that.
Google+ is many things: a username and password combo that identifies you across a number of Google-related products, a profile page where you engage with your friends, a limitless possibility of creative, highly specialised Circles to join.
This (mis)perception isn't entirely our fault. When Google introduced its social offering, the company did so with the mission of facilitating friend connections. "Share what matters with the people who matter most," its blog post read. Given Google's size and importance, this type of explanation, plus the feed and profile picture elements, were enough to draw an easy comparison to its Silicon Valley neighbour.
The problem is that as Google+ evolved, we failed to remove it from Facebook's ever-growing shadow.
Google+ is more like a glue connecting your identity with all of the company's other features than a go-to social hub. Its login functionality, which allows people to use their Google+ identity to register for third-party apps, is more useful than the social circles the platform totes for specialised sharing. In fact, social login may be one of the few areas where a Facebook comparison is actually merited.
From a social standpoint, however, Facebook and Google+ are apples and oranges. They offer many of the same features, but the audience and use cases are vastly different. I visit Facebook to see what my friends are up to, or post photos from a fun weekend in Tahoe. I visit Google+ to see who's emailing me at work, or to video chat with my colleagues.
Despite its 300-plus million users and emphasis on personalised sharing (i.e. circles), the service was recently described as a ghost town. Critics poked fun at Google+ when product head Vic Gundotra left the company April, with one critic claiming on Twitter that Gundotra "spent his last hour on the job personally calling all of Google+'s users to thank them for their support."
There is definitely a collection of devoted users and communities on Google+ - but for the most part, Google+ is a social identity more than a place to share your vacation photos.
Google is OK with this. In fact, it may even be what the service was built for. "As a social network, Google+ helps users connect with the people and interests they love," David Besbris, head of Google+ told Mashable in a statement. "As a social fabric, Google+ helps bring a more consistent experience to the apps people use every day."
The "social fabric" reference is evidence that the company sees Google+ as an overarching tool. Google simply doesn't talk about that enough. Twitter, which is five years older than Google+, is still trying to teach people how to use its service. Google+ seems content throwing new photo features at its power users, while others wonder what circles even are.
So yes, Google is "losing" to Facebook when it comes to social networking. But Facebook's also trying a lot harder.
Unlike Facebook, where social has always been its foundation, Google was late to the social game. The company has dozens of other projects to which it's devoting time and attention, and hardly any of them have to do with social media. Facebook is building ephemeral messaging apps; Google is building self-driving cars.
"I just don't think that social is a big focus for [Google] right now," Brian Blau, an industry analyst with Gartner told Mashable ahead of I/O. "The overall value of a social stream is going down over time, and is becoming a feature [versus] a pillar."
With hundreds of millions of users, Google is not giving up on social; it's simply prioritising other projects. You can't compare a full-time party host with a part-time socialite. And unlike Twitter, Facebook or even LinkedIn, social interactions will never be a major part of Google's identity.
Mashable is the largest independent news source covering digital culture, social media and technology.