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How We Got Here
It's easy to think of social networking sites as a new phenomenon, but the reality is that online social networks have existed in some capacity for over a decade now. The first recognized social networking site, sixdegrees.com, launched in 1997 (1). Over the next few years blogging sites like LiveJournal started to recognize the power of the community they had created, and incorporated features that allowed users to network and connect. Sites like Friendster and Bebo launched with the explicit goal of connecting people with their friends in new ways. MySpace, the first of the current generation of social networking sites, launched in 2002. Following tremendous initial growth that left other sites in relative obscurity, it spent several years at the pinnacle of the social networking mountain until Facebook knocked it off its perch in 2008 (2). Facebook continues to eclipse all rivals, with 750 million members reported in July 2011 (3).
Now, a new contender has appeared on the scene: Google+. With all the might of the Google brand behind it, a full year of development and, lessons learned from Google's past forays into the social space (Orkut and Buzz), Google believes it has developed a product that will fundamentally change the way we share content and interact online (4). But after four years of unchecked dominance and three-quarters of a billion established followers at Facebook, is Google+ really set to shake up the social networking space?
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How Will the Smaller Players Fare?
The slice of the social networking pie that has been left behind for bit players like Friendster, Bebo, MySpace and even Google's own Orkut service is not a substantial one. As far as Orkut is concerned, Google has already stated its intention to keep it but raised the possibility of future integration with Plus (5).
MySpace appears to be in the throes of a fairly terminal decline, with previous owners News Corporation having to take a massive reduction in price (reportedly from a $100 million asking price to somewhere around $35 million) in order to get the ailing web property taken off their hands. The rumoured plans for MySpace include an increased focus on music, but the site has been heading in this direction since its last major redesign in 2009 and it seems unlikely that this will save it. The site is also suffering from the fact that it has never compared favourably to Facebook since the latter came on the scene, and its steady slide over the past four years has given users little cause for optimism or enthusiasm. With another serious player on the market, MySpace will be hard pressed to prevent its ongoing downward slide from steepening.
For the smaller sites that were largely shunted aside by first MySpace and then Facebook, they have generally either gone in the direction of MySpace and taken aim at a very specific audience (for example, Friendster has converted to a gaming site) or a localized population (Bebo is popular in the UK; Orkut in Brazil.) It seems likely that with Plus set to scoop up a large chunk of the social networking market, more sites will end up abandoning social networking efforts that are unlikely to gain traction. Inevitably, some smaller players will fall by the wayside as the shakedown continues.
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How will the Larger Players Fare?
For the larger social networking services, the arrival of Google+ is not without impact. Sites with a niche audience, such as LinkedIn, may ride out the changes relatively unscathed; they had already differentiated themselves from sites like Facebook by targeting a specific audience with a specific purpose in mind, and have a loyal and sizable group of users in the space. Twitter will be a very interesting case to follow; already struggling to find a sustainable revenue model, the service has held its own against Facebook but may turn out to be the victim as users tire of maintaining content in multiple areas. The fact that Twitter, which is very popular as a marketing tool, and the professionally focused LinkedIn have succeeded in the era of Facebook also suggests that the line between business and personal use may become more clearly defined as we move forward.
Nonetheless Google+ certainly seems poised, at least at this early stage, to become a serious rival to Facebook. Ironically, the 750 million+ user base on Facebook is turning out to be an extremely effective viral marketing tool for spreading the word on its new rival and sharing invites. Plus certainly offers control sharing options and advanced features designed to address known dissatisfactions with Facebook, and early adopters have responded very positively to this.. However, some of the big issues remain. Plus's terms of service offer no particular added value to those users who disagree with Facebook's use of personal data: essentially the same claim to content that is posted using the service exists (6), and Google has its own red flags in this area stemming from the Buzz and Streetview launches.
If Google+ fails in its key measure of success - winning over a critical mass of users from Facebook - the two sites may have to find a way to exist side-by-side. People looking to make the leap to Plus but with a core group of friends who won't leave Facebook will face a choice between abandoning the close contact they currently enjoy with those friends, and maintaining a presence on both sides. Tools allowing users to update both Google+ streams and Facebook feeds simultaneously, like many that currently exist for Facebook and Twitter, would be a key part in this environment.
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A Changing Environment
Google+ represents a seismic shift in the social networking environment. Existing sites suddenly find themselves facing a major new player in the competition for user base and market share. Inevitably there will be some casualties as the new order takes shape, and sites may find themselves having to adapt or accept that their time is over. The rivalry between Google+ and Facebook will be the key battle that defines the new social networking landscape.
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1) Boyd & Ellison: Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship
2) Techtree: Facebook Largest, Growing Social Network
3) USA Today: Facebook Says Membership Has Grown to 750 Million
5) Digital Trends: Orkut Will Continue Alongside Plus
6) Conceivably Tech: Google+: And You Thought Facebook is a Privacy Nightmare
Screenshots by author