Let’s play a nice game for a Sunday morning. See if you can spot the difference between these two social media web pages.
Okay, the content is different, but otherwise there’s not much between them is there? The first is from my Diaspora* stream, and the second from my Google+ stream.
As you may be aware, my experiment with Facebook ended with deleting my account there. I was unhappy with the arbitrary changes to my security, the constant fight with advertising, and simply trying to keep up with everything going on. Facebook has become mainstream in the past couple of years, to my mind jumping the shark. Every manufacturer wants us to “friend” them, to keep up with all their advertising nonsense. I fell for that at first, but eventually I found I was spending more time fending off requests to join silly games, or managing my interaction with groups I had joined, than doing anything useful. I had entered into my Facebook world with my eyes wide open, knowing my presence there was simply to be sold on as advertising fodder, and even though I had locked down my account as far as possible I could’t ignore the sense of looming paranoia that simply having a Facebook account engendered. I left, and felt much happier for it.
Meanwhile, I had been following the progress of a new kid on the block. Diaspora* was launched as an open source community project to provide a better and more secure alternative to Facebook. Rumours of this new social media site began circulating more than a year ago, and eventually it entered what the developers call a “public alpha” stage. I registered my interest in joining, and finally got my invitation. It made a refreshing, if somewhat spartan, change to the cluttered, overbearing and frankly noisy space inhabited by Facebook. It’s been spartan ever since. While many of my online friends wanted invitations, and signed up, activity is rare. The problem, I think, is while Diaspora* is trying to be a better Facebook, the things that attract people to the latter simply don’t exist in the former.
The other problem is since Diaspora* has been in development, and has made some welcome improvements over the past few months, a big blue gorilla has entered the room and started throwing its not inconsiderable weight about. I’m talking about Google.
In a very short space of time, Google+ has taken the tech world by surprise. Initially only open to join by invitation, Google+ is now open to anyone with a Google account, be it Gmail, Blogger or just the web tools. I signed up yesterday, even though I had intended to sit on the sidelines and let things settle.
Like Diaspora*, Google+ is still in a field testing phase, but it has already gained more traction in a week than Diaspora* has managed in a year. I can only attribute this to the fact that Google is a well-established—one might even say ubiquitous—presence in the online world. Google has video and photo sharing, maps, web stats, email, a web browser, office applications, and of course web search, already firmly established and available to back up a social media site. Crucially, it also has a growing mobile space with Android. Social media works best when it can be accessed via a smart phone, and Google knows this. Diaspora* has none of this to back up its venture, relying instead on developers taking such projects on and adding them to the pot as they mature. As I write, the sum total of such projects in the Diaspora* world is one, and I’m not even sure what it does.
Google tried a similar social media toy a while ago, launching what they called Buzz. On the surface, it seemed a good idea, but in practice, people found it simply too intrusive and confusing in many ways, and Buzz was consigned to Google’s digital Techno Drawer. You can still sign up for it if you want, but I don’t know anyone who has. But Google is one of those companies that exists to innovate. Ideas spread from Mountain View like sparks from a sparkler. Some fizzle out, others live briefly, yet others manage to hit the mark and grow into something bigger. I think Google+ is one of the latter.
Since the Google gorilla has so much weight to throw around, I wonder what will happen to Diaspora*. Sadly, I don’t think they will be able to muster the resources to overcome Google—Google has literally lifted the best features of Twitter and Diaspora* and built them into Google+. Diaspora* simply doesn’t have the momentum to take on such a behemoth, and I suspect the best outcome will be that Google simply buys them out, for good or ill.
Such an outcome would be sad, albeit inevitable. Diaspora* was launched on a wave of disaffection with the Facebook hegemony, and worries over personal online safety. Facebook has since grown ever larger, and seems unstoppable right now. If anything can take Zuckerberg’s empire on and have a chance at winning, it’ll be the other tainted empire of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Should I be worried? We’ll see.