Companies can only compete with each other by matching the other’s features for so long. This is especially true when, like Google and Facebook, both are already giving away their product for free. With their latest updates to their social media portals, each company is playing to its strengths: Facebook has eyeballs, and Google has software.
Facebook’s new feature is called Subscribe, or “the Subscribe button.” I’m making the early bet that, as with “Like”/”the Like button,” Twitter’s “Follow,” or “friend,” we’ll soon settle on using just the short verb-only form. So let’s just call it “Subscribe.”
Subscribe tailors the Facebook feed a few different ways. Facebook engineer Zach Rait’s three-part summary is helpful:
You can use it to:
- Choose what you see from people in News Feed
- Hear from people, even if you’re not friends
- Let people hear from you, even if you’re not friends
So as a writer, you have the option to make some of your Facebook updates available not just to friends but strangers, too, by enabling “Allow Subscribers” on your new Subscriptions page. Then for each post, you choose whether it will be visible to the public (i.e., your subscribers), friends only, or a custom subset.
This gives you somewhat more control over who sees what. It also lets you still easily share content with users who you don’t necessarily want to “friend,” opening yourself up to sharing too much information, direct messages, or status updates you don’t really want to see. It’s particularly well-suited for public figures or anyone else comfortable sharing media or observations in the open air. Facebook’s giant network offers these users a platform and an audience.
As a reader, Subscribe lets you filter what kinds of updates you receive from both your friends and users whose updates you’ve subscribed to. You can see the full firehose, a sampling, or only particular kinds of media or important life-status updates. This is particularly well-suited for family members or old classmates whose weddings or job moves you may want to track, but not their Foursquare check-ins.
So Subscribe opens Facebook up so users can read more high-quality material than they could previously access, and offers to filter out more of the banal material that drives users away. It gives bloggers and celebrities a more natural and immediate portal to share material and connect with audiences than Facebook’s fan pages. It makes Facebook a little more like Twitter, Tumblr or Google+, while still preserving (perhaps even salvaging) the “friend” distinction that shaped Facebook and its entire generation of social media networks.
Google+ missed that generation, and the hundreds of millions of social media users that came with it. Its task is to grow that number by leveraging the popularity of its other web properties and the software that powers them. If you use Google products, Google wants you to use them with its social media and identity service. That’s what +snippets are all about.
When Google+ launched, it used Gmail, Google Talk, YouTube, Picasa and Android (among others) as components. It’s since added Games, made it easier to share reading material from the Google Books library, better incorporated the +1 button (that name still gets the long-form treatment), and introduced “+snippets” to share simple content from web sites.
It’s kind of a funny name, but Google apparently is running with it. Now, Google’s expanded +snippets to include Maps.
Sharing maps, I think, is the first use case that really hints at the future potential of Google+. Google VP Bradley Horowitz explains how it works:
Suppose you’re planning a weekend trip to Napa. Your packing list probably includes driving directions, hotel information and a list of nearby wineries. Many of you visit Google Maps for this kind of information already. But with +snippets, Google+ users can easily share directions or places (for example) with fellow travelers.
Let’s say you’re a Google Maps and Gmail user, but you don’t have a Google Profile or Google+ account. Google just gave you a reason to change that. Instead of cutting and pasting directions (sometimes the same directions) repeatedly to the same group of friends and family, you set up a standing circle of party or outing invitees. Because you can send notifications over e-mail, it doesn’t even matter if they use Google+. They’ll still get the map, or a link to it. No need for separate invitations on Facebook and email (and Twitter, etc). It’s a social map for social events.
You can easily see this model metastasizing across the Google family, from Docs and Calendar, Shopping and Scholar, to the brand-new Google Flights. All of Google’s properties become funnels for Google+, each one of them adding users — even if they’re casual, rare users — and adding value to the new site.
Google has well-established media and needs users. Facebook has users, but needs new media beyond Zynga games to keep them. Slowly but surely, the platforms are moving to the same destination, but now they’re using slightly different resources to get there.