A few weeks ago I asked if Google+ was putting Facebook on the defensive. After yesterday’s Facebook announcement, I don’t think there’s any question. Many journalists have described the promised changes as giving users “new control over privacy” and suggested that Facebook is just giving us a chance to be more private like G+. Some have even suggested that this new focus on privacy is an “about-face” from Facebook’s former philosophy. I’d like to suggest that Facebook hasn’t changed their attitude about privacy at all. My gut tells me—and this is truly a hunch, no insider info here—that the announced changes are mostly significant because Facebook is actually preparing users for something much bigger. Facebook is being more reactive now then they’ve ever been, but it’s not just because of G+. It’s also because of Twitter. Actually, it’s because Twitter offers a possible vision of G+’s future. Sound confusing? Let me explain.
G+ basically is a combination of Twitter & Facebook. Lots of journalists seem to have missed this pretty basic idea. They see G+ as a Facebook competitor and one that will be hard-pressed to pull users away from their friend networks. From where I sit (and only Google can tell us from checking their usage logs), way more people are interested in the Twitter-like public sharing side of G+ than they are in the private sharing among friends. In other words, G+’s popularity is being driven by Twitter-like activity, not Facebook-like activity. G+ probably has something near 30 million users at this point.
That’s nothing to sneeze at. But Twitter, of course, is orders of magnitude larger, and still growing like mad. The worry for Facebook then, is that G+ could become as large as Twitter and then G+ could start gradually pulling users into the more private behavior that typically occurs on Facebook. This possible future for G+ is even scarier for Facebook than Twitter’s present or future, because at least it’s assumed that Twitter will never try to do the “private” thing.
My guess, then, is that Facebook is announcing to users more front and center access to “privacy features” because Facebook is actually planning to make an even bigger push into the public, Twitter-like sphere. Consider this: when asked what he thought the most important part of yesterday’s release was, Facebook’s VP of Product Chris Cox reiterated that Facebook was a “sharing tool” and considering the audience you’re sharing with is important. He didn’t talk about privacy, except to say that nothing can really guarantee your privacy online. (That’s the pretty standard line on privacy for Zuckerberg.)
In practical terms, what does this mean for Facebook? I think it means we’re going to see Facebook get more “reactive” on its public side as well as it’s private, group-sharing side. I think it means we’re going to see Facebook push users towards public and “mass” sharing. More specifically, I think we’ll see changes to “fan pages” and the newsfeeds (maybe even the “dual newsfeed”) so that Facebook can allow its users to get the “Twitter-like” experience from the public figures, brands and sources of interest they follow on Facebook.
Facebook understood Twitter’s power early on, and incorporated Twitter’ essence—the “status update”—in a way that made a huge difference for Facebook. It incorporated elements of Twitter without detracting from their core. Gradually, the usefulness of Twitter has become less & less about following your friends, and more about following your interests. Twitter behavior evolved away from “what are you doing?” to “what’s happening?” In doing so, Twitter has become a credible threat to standard gatekeepers of news. My sense is that this is what Zuckerberg has always wanted for his “newsfeed”—Facebook shouldn’t just be about what your friends are doing, but it should also be a “sharing tool” in the grander sense. Facebook has not yet created a “newsfeed” that really gives you personalized news the way Twitter can, or Google+ now can.
So is G+ putting Facebook on the defensive? Yes, but only because G+ is a combination of Twitter & Facebook, and Facebook, at some level, may have always had a bit of Twitter envy in its blood. Now if Facebook can evolve to give us TwitBook, then they’ll beat G+ at their own game, creating the first massively popular all-in-one public-private “social network” before G+ can ever really get off the ground. This naturally begs the question: “Is this public-private combination in one service what people actually want?” Only time will tell.