Social Success

Earlier this month Linus Edwards wrote an article he titled Numbers, a piece where he posited that metrics-based social networks such as Twitter have made interpersonal interaction a game in which attracting the most attention means winning, and have simultaneously chipped away at the majority’s ability to maintain real relationships devoid of such concrete numbers and superficial endorsements in the form of likes, favorites, retweets, etcetera. In response to his essay, I countered by questioning the existence of this purportedly unfortunate shift in Killing Twitter, and an interesting conversation ensued. Ultimately, in evaluating the validity of Linus’s proposed network devoid of all but the most basic of social mechanics, it came down a question of the aspects leading to such a service’s success. Unsurprisingly, that effectively ended the conversation; but it also got me thinking.

In my final response on Twitter, I used the word “amorphous” to describe the difficult combination of tangible and intangible aspects that combine to make a social network successful. I chose that term because we only have general ideas as to what makes these online communities explode in popularity, but as of yet possess little concrete evidence; there is no formula for the next Facebook, and starting a viable competitor in the social space remains significantly harder than even creating a new cryptocurrency, after all. Even evaluating success, counter-intuitively and contrary to what many would preach, is in reality nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem at first glance: a one-size-fits-all measurement simply does not apply to these incredibly diverse sites and services, just as it would be laughably foolish to judge every company by the same meter. Amazon may not turn a profit, but that does not signal the company’s inevitable demise as a viable business even though — at the other end of the spectrum — other corporations like Apple break record upon record with increased sales and extraordinary margins every quarter. Rather than determining merit based on something so imprecise and, quite frankly, crude as pageviews; a measure so fickle, complex, and difficult to quantify as popularity; or another, similarly illogical statistic, then, a much better metric for evaluating a network is to examine the creators’ goals and compare that to the service’s current status, for it is only at that juxtaposition — the intersection of intentionality and reality — that we will find the elusive answer we seek.

Consider Facebook, for example: if the The Social Network taught us anything, it showed us that the ability to share gossip ranked among the top motivations that ultimately defined and led to Facebook’s creation; on that front, then, the service does indeed continue to fulfill its initial goal even today. Further, with regards to its secondary-turned-primary aim of facilitating communication between many individuals spread across large distances, Facebook has also attained great popularity for accomplishing this especially well amongst the vast majority of the developed world. In terms of its creator’s goals, then, Facebook qualifies as a resounding success, and on the end-user side, the desired use case for this service is remarkably similar: the masses wanted a great way to stay in touch with their friends, yes, but a place to gossip about them as well; Facebook fulfilled both those needs, and thus became incredibly popular — a success in the eyes of the masses. So today, no matter how one looks at it, Facebook is a success. Next, let’s take a look at Twitter.

Twitter started out as a replacement for text messaging, where it succeeded both in terms of its creators’ goals and users’ expectation for a time, then transitioned — excuse me, pivoted — to a microblogging platform, where it succeeds remarkably well today in both camps. Although Dick Costolo probably wishes for a better monetization strategy — or at least, better results with the current one — for Twitter’s existing 255 million members, I highly doubt anyone on the development team calls it a failure. Plus, the majority of Twitter’s users love the service, and so it obviously meets their needs in this area. Like Facebook, evaluating Twitter’s success is a rather straightforward, then; not so much, however, for Google+.

When Google+ launched in June of 2011, it did so to great fanfare: many heralded it as the next big thing, the be-all end-all social network that would live at the intersection of Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously solving the problems of both. Not everyone felt this way, but such voices made up a small enough faction that the louder, complimentary ones invariably drowned them out. In the absence of any concrete directive from Google as to the explicit purpose of this new social network, the public pushed their own grandiose aspirations onto it in an effort doomed to eventual disappointment. And so today, as a result, nearly three years later, few consider Google+ anything but a disastrous failure, and thus is it painted whenever anyone refers to it.

However, such simplistic, binary thinking fails to take into account the goals for which Google created Google+: whereas the masses expected a Facebook killer, Google had no desire to compete on that front; rather, the company wanted a single sign-on system that could spread across a vast number of sites and services so as to better track individuals and their actions, and in doing so develop more comprehensive profiles through which Google could ultimately deliver more targeted advertising. Knowing few would readily accept such an approach though, Google found itself presented with the question of how to make this new tracking and identification methodology both attractive and acceptable; they found their answer in a hybrid of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging that eventually launched as Google+. Although the network failed in the eyes of almost everyone and therefore often gets cast in a disparaging light, Google+ succeeded in terms of its creator’s goals. Thus, Google+ is a success: it fulfilled every goal it set out to, and continues to do the same to this day.

I realize this is an unpopular and unconventional point of view, but Google’s recent decision to all but abandon the Google+ brand lends it further credence: with Google+ an effectively dead — and perhaps even toxic — brand, Google has begun to forsake it in favor of the more preferred and simple “Google” while still making use of the underlying architecture the declining social network was built upon. Again, this by no means indicates a failure on the part of Google+ to gain popularity and traction, but rather a confirmation of the hypothesis I put forth above: Google created Google+ to have a protocol by which they could track and identify their users, not build a Facebook competitor as many supposed. Abandoning the brand “Google+” shows that furthering it was never the goal at all. Instead, the goal was to make an underlying, pervasive protocol and give users a superficial reason to willingly sign up. So let me say it again: Google+ was and is absolutely a success, and anyone arguing otherwise fails to understand the purpose for which Google created it in the first place.

Any discussion of the recent social landscape would be incomplete without some mention of the semi-popular App.net that, like Google+, launched to great fanfare, and — like Google+ — flopped in terms of public sentiment soon afterwards. The key difference that makes talking about App.net interesting, however, once again lies in the nuanced disparity between the goals of its creators and expectations of its users, and the reality in which it exists. From the onset, an unstable revenue model has plagued Twitter and forced those at its helm to make questionable decisions. Seeing this and the many other problems facing the service and hoping to fix them, Mixed Media Labs created App.net in 2012 with the intention of replacing Twitter. Most importantly though, this goal aligned with the expectations of its users: both parties intended for this new entrant to overtake and, ultimately, obviate Twitter. Many will argue with this characterization, but everything from the design aesthetic to the revenue model by which users paid for access to the maximum post length of 256 characters versus Twitter’s 140 sought to position App.net as the superior service — and to an extent, those aspects truly did improve App.net; however, for the same enigmatic reasons Google+ “failed” in the eyes of the public despite having many of the same features Facebook did, and in some ways improving on them to boot, App.net met with failure shortly after launching. Unlike Google+, though, which attained success in its target area and merely fell short of the aspirations the public pushed onto it preluding its debut, App.net failed in both regards, with respect to its creators’ goals and its users’ desires both. Thus, App.net — by any measure — is a failure.

At this point any further analysis would begin to delve into past social networks such as MySpace or, potentially, even Usenet, but I feel significantly less comfortable talking about those sites than I do ones I have actually used and lived through. Regardless of how far I went back though, the subtle trend I have been alluding to up until now would remain the same: success in this space — and perhaps I would even go so far as to say in every area of both business and one’s personal life — depends solely on the goals outlined at the onset. Mark Zuckerberg intended for Facebook to become a popular platform for interactions both good and bad, potential users wanted the same, and thus Facebook succeeded. Likewise, the desires of Twitter’s creators and those of its users align and form both the way in which the service operates and how it gets used, and thus Twitter is a success as well. In the case of Google+, however, this evaluation becomes slightly more difficult: although public opinion considers it a pathetic failure, Google never intended it to usurp Facebook or even Twitter — that was not the intention Google had when creating it; the goal Google did lay out for their fledgling social network, however, it did accomplish, and thus we may call Google+ a success as well. And then bringing it full-circle we have App.net, the one large-scale endeavor of the last few years that truly failed both with respect to the goals of its creators and the desires of its users both. Success, then, depends on your goals, and to judge it by any other measure would be to judge erroneously.

I started with the title “Amorphous Success” as a nod to the tweet that inspired me to write this, but mostly because when I first set out to put my thoughts into words I truly believed what evaluating something so subjective as a social network’s success was, in fact, quite hard. In terms of Linus’s proposed network, even if he did create it, how could anyone ever truly determine whether it deserved to have “successful” appended to any discussion of it? Shortly after I started, though, I realized the difficulty is not in defining success at all, for one can do so simply by looking to the juxtaposition of intention and reality for such an answer.