What’s wrong with Google+

I’ve been playing around with Google+ more-or-less since it launched, but I’m not sold on it yet. After a bit of thought, I think it’s because there’s a fundamental disconnect between the kinds of behaviour that it encourages and the kinds of behaviour that it’s actually good at. Or maybe I’m just using it wrong. Either way, I’ll explain my reasoning here.

First, I should describe my frame of reference. I use both Twitter and Facebook, but I like the former much more.

In Twitter, a message (tweet) is, to risk stating the obvious, a message. It’s text-only; multi-media is managed entirely by links. (They have started to implement their own media services, such as for pictures, though these are still, currently at least, just links to servers hosted by Twitter and are not special in any other way.) Replies are tagged — in that you can see which message it was a reply to — but they’re basically the same as any other tweet. Shared tweets — retweets — works in the same way: they’re tagged but otherwise appear just as another message. Relationships are one way, that is I can follow you but there is no obligation for you to follow me.

Facebook differs in both of these respects. First, not all messages are alike. It natively manages multimedia such a photographs, videos and links. Replies — comments — are also a special type of message and are displayed differently. Relationships are always reciprocal, which means that if I see your updates, you see mine. You don’t see posts from other users that you’re not connected to but you do see comments from them.

Facebook also has the concept of pages, which I’m going to ignore for the moment since it’s not how I normally use Facebook ((Though you’re welcome to visit the pages for my apps, Yummy and www.cut.)). The gist is that while Twitter has one message type for everything, Facebook feels much more complicated.

Google+ tries to straddle the two with one-way relationships (like Twitter) and multi-media messages and comments (like Facebook).

To be clear, I don’t think that the Facebook or Twitter approach to relationships or messages is superior to the other. I think they’re geared towards different things.

I think it’s fair to say that the Twitter method encourages you to follow more people. The obvious reason for this is that relationships are only one way. I can follow a celebrity or a company that I am interested in but they don’t have to clutter their timeline with my comments about iPhone development or my life in London.

More subtle is that all the messages are about the same size. The advantage of this is that you can quickly skim large numbers of messages, only looking at the pictures and videos that promise to be the most interesting.

Google+ tries to straddle both, but I think that’s where it fails. Like Twitter, they encourage you to follow a lot of people but even following a fairly small number of users I find the flow of messages hard to keep up with. Since the whole message is displayed I, in some way, feel compelled to read posts that on Twitter I’d probably skip.

The screenshots below, from the Twitter and Google+ iPhone apps, illustrate what I mean.

Google+ iOS story view

This is the Google+ view. I see a single post and two out of nearly fifty comments. Of the people that I follow on Google+, this, I would say, is pretty typical.

Twitter iOS tweet view

And this is Twitter, where I see four tweets. This arrangement is not uncommon, though I often see more tweets than this.

And then after the posts there’s the comments. On Twitter I only see replies by people I already know. If I see a post by, say, Robert Scoble, do I really need to see a hundred comments by people I don’t know? Chances are good that I might want to see comments from people I know but probably not complete strangers.

Facebook solves the problem by reducing the probability that you’re going to have a few hundred comments on a post. If you “only” have a couple of hundred friends, it’s pretty unlikely that every one of them will comment! If you have a hundred thousand followers that does change the dynamics.

(A counter-argument would be that this is a good way to find new users to follow. However, I think the clever thing about Twitter is that these other comments are still public and can be viewed, it’s just that by default your message stream is not cluttered with them.)

In short, the simplicity of Twitter is often seen as a disadvantage but I think it works remarkably well. Facebook has a different goal — closer relationships with smaller numbers of users — but also seems to do pretty well on that front.

Google+, by trying to facilitate both uses cases, seems to do neither quite as well.