Monday, July 04, 2011

Invite-only a good thing for Google+?

My complaint yesterday about Google making their new social networking site invite-only got some flak elsewhere about being too dismissive of the usefulness of the invite-only beta-testing phase of Google+. It does make sense for a software product of any kind to be thoroughly tested for bugs before being released to the general public, and I could very well have been quite wrong about an initial closed-off phase being bad for social networking sites. The obvious counter-example is the most popular social networking site now in existence, namely Facebook. It started out being closed off to everyone except college/university students.

But that comparison points out the fundamental difference in the approach between Facebook and Google. Facebook limited its initial clientele according to social characteristics of the potential clientele: whether they were in school or not. Google's invites are being targeted, initially, at web developers, not because of any social characteristics of the web developer population but because of technical considerations: so they can debug the technical mechanics of the platform. This may mean that an initial, inter-connected and identifiable social segment of the larger population will indeed populate Google+ and thereby make it useful, so that Google+ becomes the social network of choice for tech-heads, but I still think it will be the success or failure of that initial population seeding, not any considerations of technical polish, that will set the trajectory for whether Google+ succeeds or fails.

As for the importance of debugging: it's probably not a pleasant thing for a tech developer to hear that the quality of their technical work is not actually all that important in people's decisions about what technology to use, but the entire history of technology for the masses seems to suggest that crappy-but-accessible eventually beats out polished-but-inaccessible most times: PC beat out Mac, DOS beat out OS/2, Microsoft Windows beat out everything else. This is just as true for social networking sites as for anything else. After all, nobody used Myspace because it was so well designed and so unlikely to error out. True, the much more cleanly laid out Facebook eventually superseded it, but Facebook's rise coincided with the rolling out of Facebook apps, which were still quite an attractive draw for the masses even when they (a) messed up the formerly clean layout of Facebook profiles, and (b)would initially error out as often as not. Unless there are parts of the Google+ site that currently flat out fail to function at all, then I think the potential bugginess of the platform isn't nearly as big an issue for the masses as the average tech developer might think it is.

So I could well be wrong about why I think being invite-only is a bad idea for Google+ as it currently stands, but as yet I'm not fully convinced.

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