If there’s one defining feature about Web 2.0 is that the focus shifted from one way information delivery to user centered interactions. Primarily I’d attribute this to the resulting fallout from the dot-com crash that fostered an environment for innovators to rise from the ashes of the former Internet giants. Such companies didn’t have the built in following that the companies that preceded them did so their best bet for success was to focus on drawing users into their various services. Once it became the in thing to be big on the Internet we saw the explosion of user centric services we see today and the current starlets of the Web 2.0 stage are of course the social networks.
Owing their success to people’s inate desire to belong and a non-obvious competetion element (read: the friend/follower/whatever counts) the social networks started out as just that, a place for you to keep in touch with real world friends. However as their popularity grew they inevitably attracted the attention of big business who, after many years no longer had the bitter after-taste of the dot-com crash in their mouths, saw a large and as of yet untapped market. From there it wasn’t very long before the user centric service became yet another essential part of every marketing campaign known to man, save for the few who see the social web as a passing fad.
For the most part though this actually increases the allure of social networks for most people. The fact that there’s even a tenuous connection between you and the celebrity du jour or your favourite company, whether it be following them on Twitter or becoming a fan of them on Facebook, gives the Web 2.0 generation that same sense of belonging that they craved when they first joined their social networks. This also works well for the other side of the equation too (the celebrities, Internet starlets et al) as there is little disconnection between themselves and their fans, meaning that they are much more able to command the attention of their audience. When your audience numbers aren’t big enough for you to command your own research and marketing teams social networks become your lifeline to staying in touch with your audience and hopefully keeping them on as fans.
However after using the top tier of social networks for a couple years I’ve started to notice an interesting yet puzzling trend. For the most part people will usually settle on their network of choice which is largely centered around what their highest percieved value of said network is. For the wide majority the pervasiveness of Facebook amongst a wide demographic makes it the best for connecting with friends. Others crave the constant stream of consciousness that is Twitter whilst some may just prefer to see videos from a select bunch of people, thus gravitating towards Youtube. For those on the other side of the equation, those looking to exploit the ability to capture an audience, it seems that you can’t be as choosy with your social networks. You’ve basically got to be on all of them.
Readers of this blog may or may not know the many different ways I promote it, but I know how many of you come through my different channels. Taking a gander of my Google Analytics reveals that about 11% of you have this site bookmarked (or type the address in manually every time, you sadists!), 9% come from Facebook and a mere 2.5% come from links on Twitter. The vast majority of people who get here come through searches, just under 50%. But as many marketer’s will tell you ignoring the long tail can be quite foolish and that is the exact reason why I’m publishing myself through all of those mediums (hey come on I never made it much of a secret that I thought this blog would be my shot at Internet fame and fortune :P).
For many of the current generation of Internet starlets they are in the exact same position. The place that I see this being most prevelent is on Youtube with every single big channel littered with links to follow them on Twitter and fan them on Facebook. They know that if they deliberately abstain from being available through these mediums they’re losing a potential audience. Never mind that the content that they delivered is what made them popular in the first place the fact that someone doesn’t participate in a certain social medium says more than “I can’t be bothered” to the social networking crowd. They would seem to take it as you don’t really care about them, almost tantamount to ignoring them in public.
Partially this is what spurred my current conquest of aggregating a whole lot of information from across the Internet. Whilst I’m under no delusions that I will be the next big thing on the Internet I’m finding more and more that the delivery of information doesn’t seem to matter as much as the people and places that it is coming from. Whilst I’m still aghast to calling my current project a social network (although I will admit I’m about to cave on that point) the high value information streams come from said networks. Thank the Web 2.0 gods for the mantra of being open and accessible or I probably wouldn’t be working on the application at all.
I guess what I’m really getting at here is that the segmentation of social networks would on the surface appear to be capturing different markets when in reality it’s just the same market duplicated several times over. Hats off to them for doing it though as traditional industry couldn’t of fathomed capturing the same market 3 times over but it feels like there’s so much duplication of effort for little benefit.
Maybe it’s the engineer in me seeing redundancy when its not needed that has lead to this feeling of wasted effort but every time I see those familiar icons on the side of a blog or whatever page to link up via various social networks I always twinge a little inside. We live in an age where information is so accessible yet we seem intent on erecting walled gardens everywhere that serve no purpose but to make dissemination of that information harder than it needs to be. Maybe I’m wrong and the simple act of providing an aggregate interface to all these services will change people’s view of such networks, but if that’s the case I’m one genius kid in a garage away from being over taken as the aggregator to use on the Internet.
So a couple days ago I caught wind of yet another upcoming Google service called Buzz. On the surface it looked like another attempt to crack into that oh-so-lucrative area of social networking (remember Orkut? Still big in Brazil and India apparently) but with a slight twist, it was going to appear in Gmail. Initially I wrote this off since I don’t use the Gmail interface very often, I’m more of an Outlook kind of guy, but when I logged in this morning and was invited to give Buzz a go I thought I might as well give it the once over to see if there would be any value in switching across.
So the integration into Gmail is pretty seamless, its just another folder on the web interface. With Gmail attracting some 150 million users every month (Less than half of Facebook, FYI) that means they have a good amount of eyes on their product already. Still it will be interesting to see the conversion rates from regular Gmail users to Buzz as the welcome screen lets you opt out completely with one click. There’s really no bells and whistles on the landing page for Buzz either so you’re not going to have to duck and weave your way through a new UI to get Buzzing. Overall you could be mistaken for thinking that Buzz was just a strangely named email folder with an icon.
I set about adding contacts to my Buzz page to see how adding people would go. Much like Facebook searching for anyone’s name directly usually ends up with thousands of people who you’ve never seen before. You can search through your contacts but this is probably the first place where Buzz falls down. To add all my Gmail buddies (which are few since I don’t use the web interface) I had to go to the search box and type in their name. I wouldn’t want to have a long list of people I’d like to add to this as I’d have to type them all in again to add them to my Buzz feed. Also while running under Firefox 3.5 I had the search box lock up on me at least 3 times and had to wait for the script kill pop up to be able to regain control of my browser. Granted this was the only technical difficulty I had with it (a long way from Wave, which we managed to crash regularly) but still any web application that locks up my browser doesn’t give me a good impression, especially when it’s something from Google.
After getting all my contacts into the list (and noticing that they haven’t posted anything to Buzz yet) I started adding in some “connected sites”. These are basically sites that you either contribute to like Youtube and Twitter or sites you own, like this blog. If you’ve created a Google Profile before you’ll be familiar with this process and the list they create is drawn from the same information. Most notably if you’ve used Google’s Webmaster’s Tools it will pick up on the sites in there as well as some other services that use your Google login. Unlike their profile service the number of extra sites is quite limited with services like Youtube, LinkedIn and Orkut missing from the list. This is strange considering 2 out of 3 of that list are in fact owned by Google.
So the real meat in Buzz seems to come from its ability to aggregate information from a whole bunch of sources into one location. I can understand the motivation behind this as it is pretty much the same idea that drives Geon. There’s also the fact that Buzz will have integration into other Google services like Maps and will also let you export a person’s feed as RSS. It would be quite an understatement to say that this wasn’t a goldmine for Geon as at its core these 2 technologies are what drives the information that will be available through it. For good measure Google slapped on the ability to post directly to Buzz which I think is completely useless but is required to get those Gmail users using Buzz sooner rather than later.
Overall it looks like a decent service and the captive Gmail audience was a good target to launch this product at. However Buzz detracts quite heavily from Google’s other communication product Wave. I sung high praises of Wave when it was first released but I’ll be honest with you, my last couple logins have seen it turn into a ghost town. My last wave is dated the 27th of November and I haven’t heard anyone else mention it in well over a month. Buzz claws away that tiny amount of market share that Wave had by giving the same level of information aggregation minus the confusing interface and social convention shift. Wave may be great for collaboration but its current market is pretty narrow, especially when there’s no one else using it. Had wave been introduced in a similar way to Buzz I could have seen it garnering much more acceptance and Buzz would’ve become an augmentation of it. Rather now it seems Wave will be left to its niche and Buzz will be the one to enjoy more widespread success. That might have been Google’s plan all along however.
Will it ever be as popular as Facebook or Twitter? Probably not but I don’t think that’s Google’s intention. It’s another avenue that Google can exploit to better target their advertising and increase user engagement with their services. With Wave still trying to find its place (and monetization stream) in the world Buzz is a more cautious step towards getting more people on Google’s products other than search. Personally I can’t see myself actively using it, but I’ll definitely be integrating it in much the same way as I did with Twitter.