Thursday, September 22, 2011

Social media wars: Google+ vs Facebook

Google+ went live for everyone this week, but getting people to adopt the new social networking site may prove difficult [ZDNet]. While the layout, design features, privacy features and relative ease of use of Google+ is excellent, it is the usual case of trying to get anyone else to use it that makes it somewhat pointless. Since Google+ is about sharing content, be that photos, links, video etc, with friends, one obviously needs some friends. But how to get some friends when they're either happier staying on Facebook, can't be bothered with opening up a Google+ account, can't see the point anyway, or are such Luddites they wouldn't know what to do with it anyway.

Getting used to Google+ is not a big deal. One posts in the same way one does with Facebook or any other social media website. However Google+ offers the facility to share that post with all your friends or just a select few. It does this by way of circles. As a user of Google+ one can add other friends to different circles. For example close friends could be dropped into the 'Friends' circle while general friends with who one may not be so close to could be placed in the 'Acquaintances' circle. There is a 'Family' circle for mum, dad, the wife etc., and of course you can make new circles for business associates, college mates or any other group one likes.

Pictures and video can be posted easily either the computer or from online folders stored in Google's Picasa Web account. Of course one may wish to move all those snaps posted on Facebook. There are two ways to do this. One is to Go through settings of the Facebook account and select the download all data option. A zip file is then sent after being compiled and the photos may then be uploaded to Google+ via Picasa web. However there is a  simple tool that can facilitate transferring all those pictures through the use of an extension which can be incorporated into Google's Chrome browser. Move2picasa simply connects to Facebook, identifies the folders containing pictures and offers to upload them to Picasa by a simple press of a button. Some 2,000 pictures took less than 2 hours on a fast cable connection. The drawback is that captions and tags will be lost, but the transfer is otherwise painless. From there one can simply add the folders to Google+ with just a few clicks, and since they are already stored in the cloud within Picasa Web, there are no upload waiting times.

But despite the ease of use, and even of transferring data, one may not be sharing your pictures or posts with anyone. Even before Google+ went live for everybody, few people took advantage of invitations sent out to them. It was the same with Google Wave. That began as invite only and there was a select few that became excited sharing invites and playing with Google's new toy. But shortly after it went live for everyone Google abandoned the project.

So where does that leave Google+? Will it flounder amongst the quagmire of other social networking sites? Has Facebook already got the upper hand?

Some people may indeed use both Facebook and Google+. Indeed there are individuals who use a multiplicity of social networking sites and online tools. Facebook remains highly popular mostly because other friends and acquaintances use it. Facebook claims to have some 750 million users. Twitter by comparison has a mere 200 million users.

Both mediums would do much better but for the fact they are censored in some parts of the world, most notably China. As such they are unable to compete for a lucrative online market. Homegrown Facebook clone Renren claimed in February this year that it had 160 million registered users though it modified that statement in April saying it had "a total of 31 million active monthly users."

Sina Weibo, China's most popular micro-blogging platform, has 140 million registered users. Both are relatively small compared to Facebook and Twitter, but the numbers are growing exponentially as more people get online in China, despite strict censorship.

That censorship has also affected Google's move into social networking. The very next day after Google+ was launched in June, China's censors blocked the site [Guardian].

However since Google's run in with Chinese authorities some 18 months ago over hacking claims and censorship, Google is more likely to be focused on markets outside the Middle Kingdom.

On a positive note it may do well if disgruntled Facebook users migrate in its direction. And this week there were many posts on the social networking site complaining about new changes to the site.

Writing in, Andrew Leonard complained that Facebook has once again decided what it thinks its users want to read. "Facebook has changed its user interface, again. Gone is the "Most Recent" button, which allowed users to see what their friends have posted in a simple, straightforward, chronological order. Now Facebook is indulging, again, in outright effrontery: employing its own secret algorithmic sauce to highlight what it considers the most important "top stories," while mixing in other recent posts far below," Leonard lambasts.

He also criticises the real-time Twitter-like stream of status updates from friends. "People don't want Facebook deciding what's most important, Facebook's suggestions were wrong, irrelevant and insulting, and why oh why oh why can't Facebook leave a good thing alone?"

He was not the only one. There are dozens of complaints across the social platform. One user wrote, "WTF??? Why can't they leave things alone. just when you get used to one layout they bloody change it!!!! NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!" and posted a picture eith the text: "Dear Facebook, your new update sucks giant balls, Sincerely your 500 million users".

For many users the changes are an intrusion, with many unwanted posts suddenly appearing in the 'news stream' of supposedly important updates. And along with the Twitter-like stream which has rolled out to some users, it has increased the clutter on the website [Economic Times / Washington Post].

"Now, News Feed will act more like your own personal newspaper," Mark Tonkelowitz, an engineering manager at Facebook, wrote on the company's blog. But many users do not want their news on Facebook. Most people use the site to connect with friends, to check out what they've been doing, see recent photos and perhaps to chat. For those interested in news there are plenty of portals where this can be obtained, from websites, Twitter, the TV and radio.

Of course, Facebook is essentially free, and some have questioned why they are complaining [ZDNet / Huffington Post]. But it does seem to matter to a lot of people. The top trending subject on Twitter this week was less to do with the news and economy, but more to do with the new look to Facebook [Twitter].

Whether the changes are enough to make people switch to Google+ or just drop the whole social networking thing altogether is debatable. Previous changes and even issues over privacy has not dented the user base of Facebook, in fact if anything the numbers of people using it has grown. However, with Google+ going live to everyone there is now a choice [Wikipedia].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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