When I read about Google, I often encounter a claim that Google’s emphasis on engineering and mathy stuff has hobbled its ability to keep up in the social media world, and is in danger from Twitter and Facebook–although maybe Google+ will change that. It’s usually something like this from the NY Times (italics mine):
But Google has been criticized for failing to understand the importance of social information on the Web until competitors like Facebook and Twitter had already leapt ahead.
Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, regrets Google’s failure to lead in this market and has spent time working with the team since he became chief executive in April, people at the company say. He promoted Mr. Gundotra to senior vice president this year, placing him on an equal level with the heads of Google’s core products like search and ads.
Part of the blame, analysts say, falls on Google’s engineering-heavy culture, which values quantitative data and algorithms over more abstract pursuits like socializing.
Exhibit A is Buzz, a sharing tool for Gmail users. It automatically included users’ e-mail contacts in their Buzz network, setting off widespread criticism that Google had invaded the privacy of users and failed to understand that people’s e-mail contacts are not necessarily their friends.
I think this is an odd argument. Google has been unsuccessful; therefore, a defining characteristic of Google must be to blame. Consider Facebook and Twitter.
Working near the MIT campus (Kendall Square), most of the computer companies seem pretty quantitative–and at the risk of stereotyping, they’re not full of social butterflies (I fit right in…). Does Mark Zuckerberg strike you as a particularly outgoing social guy? Most biographies suggest otherwise.
The Google argument also supposes that the social media companies haven’t made similar mistakes. But Facebook in 2006 also had problems when it released private, personal information to all Facebook users. Somehow though, this wasn’t a problem while Google’s similar error was–probably because there wasn’t really any place to go at the time other than My Space, so there was some room for error.
In addition, Twitter, while not screwing up the privacy issue, stumbled initially because its founders didn’t like what the users were doing with it. Twitter originally conceived of itself as a way for a small group to communicate with each other–group texting combined with a bulletin board. But the users turned it into a hybrid of microblogging, an RSS feed, and an online forum. While some people do use it as the founders originally intended, they very reluctantly accepted what users were doing with it, and it took them a while to incorporate features that were relevant to the users’ needs. Before you argue with this description, I’m certain when Twitter was launched, no one thought of Tahrir Square.
So while Google might not have been successful with its social media attempts to date, it’s not clear to me that they were any more stupid than Facebook or Twitter.