Google is reportedly working on a blockbuster social networking product, after a string of failed attempts to get in on that market. But after so many failures, you have to wonder if Google culturally able to do social networking?
Google is working with several vendors of popular online games to develop a social networking service to compete with Facebook, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal's Amir Efrati. Google watchers are calling the service "Google Me." Among the companies it's talking to are Playdom, Electronic Arts' Playfish, and Zynga Game Network, vendors of the Facebook hit Farmville. Google recently took a financial stake in Zynga.
Google has tried to launch or acquire social networks several times, but fell on its face almost every time. Buzz, Orkut, and Dodgeball have never risen above niche products.
Social networking is arguably alien to Google's DNA. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Adam Rifkin explains the problem with a delightful metaphor: Internet users can be divided into two groups -- pandas and lobsters.
Pandas are always on the move, foraging for sustenance, never staying in one spot for long. Lobsters crawl into traps and stay there.
Google is for the panda-like Internet user. Google is at its best when it is used least. Google's most popular products and services are tools that are designed to get the job done as fast as possible. When you use Google search, you want to do your search and move on fast, and Google enthusiastically cooperates in helping you minimize the amount of time you spend on their site for each transaction. Google views time spent on its own site like a supermarket manager views customer checkout time. Google wants to get searchers in and out as fast as possible.
Likewise, for Google's other successful products, Gmail and Maps. You don't want to spend a lot of time getting directions, you want to get off the computer, hop in your car and go. And while we do spent a lot of time on e-mail, we consider that a failure of the medium and we complain about it, and Google tries to minimize that time spent.
Facebook and other social media sites encourage the opposite of panda-like behavior. They're like lobster traps. They want you to visit the site ... and stay. Stick around playing Farmville, look at your friends' photos, poke each other, scribble on walls. Stay for hours.
And that's why Google failed with Buzz, failed with Orkut, and failed with Dodgeball. Google is a fast-food restaurant, they don't know how to get people to stay and linger. They consider staying and lingering to be failure. Google has had one spectacular success with social networking, YouTube, but YouTube was acquired by Google, not developed in-house, and still has a lot of independence. And even YouTube users display a lot of panda-like behavior, while many of them use the service to connect and browse, many users want to just watch a video and go. And YouTube encourages that.
Google's past history of failure doesn't mean Google is doomed to fail at social networks every time. History is not destiny. Google would have to reinvent itself to succeed at social networking, but tech companies occasionally do that. Microsoft did it a couple of times in the 90s, adopting enterprise computing and, in 1995, going from rejecting the Internet to its enthusiastic embrace. More recently, Apple has gone from a desktop computer vendor to a company whose main business is mobile devices.
And, indeed, one hopeful sign for Google is a statement by CEO Eric Schmidt, as reported in the Journal: "When asked if Google's service might resemble Facebook's, Mr. Schmidt said 'the world doesn't need a copy of the same thing.'"
Google could do social networking -- the Google way. Streamline the social networking experience, make it faster, with quicker rewards.
There is a huge opportunity in introducing more panda-like behavior into a Facebook-like experience. The user interface for Facebook is confusing and notifications often contain a lot of noise burying the information you really care about. Facebook enables you to keep in touch with your friends, but it's also a bit of a barrier, and if Google can make social networking simpler -- and force Facebook to do the same through competitive pressure -- social networking users would welcome that.
Mitch Wagner is a freelance technology journalist and social media strategist.