There are only so many social networks we can handle. When a new one emerges, like, say Google+, it has two options: kill or be killed. Remember what happened to Friendster? MySpace? The thinking goes that as Google+ grows, it can either replace Facebook or go the way of MySpace.
But perhaps there's a third way and two similar social networks can peacefully coexist? MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson (he was the first friend on every new account created) thinks so, "I want to see more distinct networks thrive. I don’t think social networking is a zero sum game," he explains in a TechCrunch editorial. Even though his own Internet social experiment failed, as Facebook dominated the space, he doesn't think it has to be that way as Google+ grows.
Learning from his own experiences as founder of a has-been site, he offers the following wisdom to Google+, hoping it doesn't have the same fate of his own failed project.
1. Google+ doesn't have to kill Facebook
Everyone assumes that only so many social networks can dominate at a given moment. Facebook ruled the aughts, now it's someone else turn. Sure, there's competition for users, but Anderson makes it clear that a social network thrives or fails not just because of competition, but also because of the real problems that existed within the network. "I suspect that people believe that social networking is a 'winner take all' endeavor, because they mistakenly assume people 'left MySpace for Facebook.' Facebook didn’t kill Myspace; MySpace 'committed suicide' through continual mismanagement," he writes. Anderson believes glitches killed these networks, and that multiple networks can coexist, "Likewise, MySpace did not 'kill Friendster'—Friendster had its own set of problems. If they’d been corrected, I believe both MySpace and Facebook would have thrived as different types of social networks." If Google recognizes that it doesn't have to create the new Facebook, but rather a distinct product, both Facebook and Google+ can live in peace.
2. Don't forget the social in social network.
Google understands the power of an algorithm, but Anderson wonders if it can let users take some control. Anderson writes, "One of the key issues that will determine the fate & nature of G+ is whether Google favors an algorithmic approach over a user-controlled approach to the stream." Its search engine has succeeded because it relies on a very good algorithm. But a social network can't fully depend on a computer generated stream, it has to integrate its automated processes with the human. Anderson worries that Google will depend too heavily on its programming. "I love using G+, enough so that I’m worried that Google is going to make a misstep and ruin the service. Specifically I worry that Google will assume an algorithm alone is what’s needed to reduce the 'signal to noise' ratio in the G+ feed." Not only does this present a problem for usability, but it also would act and look too much like its competitor, Facebook. People might not switch over to something so similar to a network it already uses, "Facebook (almost counterintuitively) is the one that favors an algorithmic approach, and currently it’s one of the defining differences between Facebook and G+." As Anderson notes, for now, Google+
With social networks, there's a balance between computer generated content, and human interactivity, "sometimes humans can do things better than computers," Anderson argues. "That sometimes when building social software, we need to use social science to understand user desire & behavior. And finally, that sometimes, it’s better to think highly of people rather than to assume your product will be too difficult to comprehend." It's not all about the algorithm, if Google can find that sweet spot, they'll succeed.
3. Google, use your strengths.
But Google really does have a great search algorithm. It shouldn't forget its roots. Google should use these strengths to create something new and different for users that makes them want to use an additional network, "More importantly, will Google use their nearly unmatched strengths (understanding of human language and machine learning) to create features we’ve never seen before." There are novel ways Google can enter this space, think of how great it would be if you could filter your friends' posts, explains Anderson, "imagine if G+ could determine the semantic nature of a post, categorize it, and let users follow a subset of topics from a user, instead of an entire feed: (e.g. follow Tom’s posts about Google+ and Apple, but not his silly .GIFs)."
Google, if you follow these guidelines, maybe your network will win the decade. Take it from Anderson, he knows.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.