It was highly ironic this week to sit through an entire day’s worth of conference presentations at VIRCOMM 2013, an event for online community professionals, and hardly hear Google+ mentioned at all. In fact, the service was only brought up in the context of commenting about how nobody was referring to it during the conference. A couple of panellists also predicted the demise of Facebook in the near future, or at least its reduction in importance. This was similarly ironic considering that a few days earlier I had noticed that, according to the admittedly not entirely definitive Alexa.com, Facebook had taken the top slot as the most popular website in the world (although it was back down to second at the time of writing this piece, with Google.com up to first again). LinkedIn wasn’t exactly taking central stage, either.
So some of the big names weren’t faring well, even if Twitter was going strong, with conference participants tweeting merrily throughout proceedings and the #vircomm13 hashtag trending mightily during the day. The absence of interest in Google+ was the most notable omission, however. Back in September, Google’s Senior Vice President of Engineering Vic Gundotra announced that the service had reached 400 million registered users, of which 100 million were active. That’s not quite up with Facebook’s billion-plus registered users, with 584 million of those active (the last time I checked), but it’s hardly small potatoes. Even if most of us who do have Google+ accounts aren’t checking them very regularly or posting on them at all, Google+ has grown very fast since its launch in mid 2011.
After all, Google has a huge advantage over Facebook, and that is all the other services it offers. Facebook is a social network first, and even if it does have hundreds of thousands of apps running on its platform, they are all tied into this central function. Google, on the other hand, has YouTube video sharing, Gmail, Google Drive applications, great calendaring, and I haven’t even mentioned its obvious market-leading search facilities. There’s a good chance you will end up on Google+ whether you like it or not at some point, as it becomes merely part of an overall package you get by signing into Google to obtain access to one of these services.
Despite its meteoric rise, Google+ has suffered from its lack of integration with popular consolidation tools like Hootsuite, although the latter does now let you manage a Google+ page through its service. This is yet another example of the walled gardens, also known as “siloing”, that Tim Berners-Lee singled out as a key issue in his piece at the World Economic Forum in January. This fragmentation of the social space looks set to be a key issue, if not the key issue, as we continue to build and develop the social Web.
Listening to the community managers talk at VIRCOMM 2013, which was a highly insightful conference I would recommend to anyone working in this area, there was a clear schism between the traditional forum and the more recent world of social networking. On more than one occasion, there was a choice between breakout sessions about one or the other. The traditional forum tools like phpBB are still very much silos, even if the information generated by their communities can be made freely readable without a login and can be found using your favourite search engine. Your identity in these spaces remains separate from your identity in other spaces, even though single sign-on systems like Facebook Connect are beginning to tie this aspect together to some extent. You still have to go to these communities to participate, which is perhaps why they are losing out to the ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter.
Forum software built from the ground up for the 21st century, the best example of which I have seen being Discourse, can provide you with the opportunity to bring your identity with you, rather than create another new identity for each forum. People signed in via Yahoo or Google can then converse with those signed in via Facebook or Twitter. But the conversation still goes on within the forum. What if, for those signed in via Facebook or Twitter, you also had the option of bringing the forum conversation out to your respective social network as well? Or, at least, what if your conversation on a forum was visible to you inside a consolidation tool like Hootsuite?
Of course, there are significant issues to this idea, not least of which is the fact that forums are (mostly) moderated whilst conversations on social networks, particularly Twitter, can only be curated and reacted to, because you don’t own the conversational space yourself. There is also the issue of advertising revenue, which will be linked to your users visiting a site rather than having their conversations elsewhere. But, like the age-old problem with having to remember a thousand passwords for a thousand different online logins, or create a security risk by using the same password for all of them, this is an issue we must find a solution for. And the answer really isn’t everyone being on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+ for that matter.