It’s safe to say that ‘social’ and ‘media’ are the buzzwords of the year. Everyone wants part of it, everyone’s in it, and not many people, yet, are sick of it. But all that’s likely to change and maybe sooner than we think.
Today i received my first invitation to join Google+ (Google Plus? GPlus? Not sure what the trendy protocol will be on this yet). The invite came from Nick, a friend who would, i’m sure, carry the badge of ‘geek’ with pride. Nick is ‘IT’ through and through, so it was no surprise that he is the first of the early adopters. This view was reinforced when i ventured through the front door and found Alex and Rhodri from my friend group there too; these two, if not fully qualified geeks, then certainly high in the ratings and certainly not people to be daunted by the qualifier ‘beta’ version and various disclaimers that Google makes you view before you enter.
So, there i was, sat in the middle of the floor, a couple of friends dotted around, some new functionality to play with, when all of a sudden i felt a certain doubt wash over me. Could i really be bothered?
After i’d uploaded my photo (suitably jaunty and cool looking) and made up a fake date of birth and fictitious blurb to fill my profile space (both intended to make me both younger and cooler than in real life), i started grouping my ‘friends’ into circles.
The problem was that i couldn’t really see the point. You see, everyone i know is on Facebook, or at least, enough of a majority to make it a safe channel to plan friday drinks with. The thought of starting up a new group just isn’t appealing.
Google+ looks like a decent platform. I’ve not delved deeply into it yet, but one clear difference from Facebook is the ability to group people and control what data those people see. For the first time, this addresses the issue of formal and informal groupings, making it ‘safer’ to befriend people from work, without them seeing the embarrassing photos of you drunk in Eastbourne wearing a gorilla suit. Nick can be in my ‘Friends’ group, but also in my ‘Work’ group, meaning he can see everything, whilst others can sit safely in my ‘Work’ group (or even ‘Peripheral Friends’ group – can they see which group they’re in… hmmm social faux pas waiting here i see…).
The idea of this greater level of control is appealing, but is it enough to drag me away from Facebook? Probably not. You see, Facebook has set the standard for engagement that others need to cross. Sure, not all my friends are on it, but he vast majority are. It’s highly unlikely that everyone is going to transition to Google+. Some of them, sure, but probably not all of them.
And even if they do, am i going to put so much effort into building a network second time around? Or will i just skip this and wait for the inevitable moment when Facebook copy the innovative functionality themselves?
It’s not that i’m particularly wedded to Facebook in itself, it’s just that it was there first, and i expended the most effort on it.
This dilemma brings to light the core issue of why do people engage with social media; is it to experience the technology, or is it to experience the social benefits that technology brings?
For me, the answer is clearly the second. Nick, Alex and Rhodri are sociable geeks, who are interested in what the technology looks like, but they’re still all on Facebook, where the rest of us sit to chat over a virtual beer.
It’s always like this: the earliest social sites, like MySpace and Facebook bought you both technology and social benefits. Later copies may have upped the stakes in terms of technology, but don’t deliver vastly increased utility in terms of social benefits. Sure, Google+ is more linked in with geolocation, but Facebook has ‘Places’, and if it’s not perfect, it is at least already populated with most of my friends.
I’m not saying that we are all Social Media luddites, who will never smash the presses and move on, but we are all at heart driven by a high level of inertia. Look at how many people still use Microsoft Word, even though there are dozens of other word processing programmes, or how many people use Amazon, even though there are thousands of other book sites. Sometimes being first, or nearly first, can give you a very substantial head start indeed. As long as you do continue to innovate that is!
So here i am, sat with four friends in an empty social space, wondering what happens next. Maybe we should try to plan a beer. I guess you’ve got to start somewhere.