Zen and the art of social media

Google takes on Facebook and Twitter in the fight to become the dominant social medium.
By
  • Sam Blake
February 17, 2010

Google has, in its time, exerted a massive amount of influence on the way that we use the Internet. This is inarguable except by that very particular brand of person capable of defending the position that the swine flu was engineered by underground Soviet-era communist scientists intent on destroying capitalism. Of course, while Google has a strong reputation for creating and popularizing new technologies, it has a less well-known but equally valid reputation of being a total biter.
Now, Google is just trying to do what it does best: make the Internet as useful to people as possible in a way that manages to garner both crazy amounts of customer loyalty and precious revenue. And while the introduction of innovative new technologies is one way they have done this (very successfully, I might add), Google’s innovations are frequently less original than people realize. Google Search was predated by Yahoo!, Lycos and the works. Google Maps borrowed heavily from MapQuest. And the recent introduction of Google Buzz is a very transparent copycat of certain social media technologies the reader may be familiar with.
Google Buzz, for those of you not yet aware, is Google’s attempt to muscle in on the popularity of Internet-based social media. Specifically, it is Twitter, with Facebook’s commenting and “like” system, integrated with Gmail. It is a blatant but carefully constructed attempt to combine the successful aspects of those two tools into something that is conveniently tied into Google’s other (more profitable) systems.
The key goal for Google at this juncture is to get a certain critical mass of people to regularly use its new toy. This is the point most new social media ventures fail; the tool is inherently useful only if other people are using it. So if enough people aren’t using it, new users won’t like it (because it isn’t useful) and will stop using it. Other successful social media tools have bypassed this hurdle in various ways. Facebook succeeded by drawing an equivalence between Facebook connections and real-life relationships. Twitter succeeded … well, Twitter actually never really succeeded. Sure, it became notorious by basically becoming a celebrity-watching tool, but it has never really nailed that social element that makes it practical. This is a likely explanation as to why Twitter’s usage rates are beginning to stagnate.
So can Google Buzz (or, as I like to call it, Twitter 2: Electric Googaloo) succeed where so many before it have failed? Google probably has the best chance of succeeding of any company due to its considerable inertia. Unlike Twitter, which only broke into the mainstream by means of clever popularity management and a whole lot of luck, Google is already a mainstay for most regular Internet users. Between Gmail, YouTube, AdWords and the rest of its bevy of products, most people interact with a Google-owned system every time they use the Internet. With Google Buzz sitting there right underneath the Inbox, it’s going to be hard for users to resist the temptation to make use of it.
In this, Google demonstrates its understanding of how to win popular acceptance of a social media tool: Be so prolific to begin with that people can’t help but use it — a neat trick, if you can do it.

Sam Blake welcomes comments at sblake@mndaily.com.

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