The ideal Google social network

Google's social network plansOrkut was good. But clearly, not good enough. I was an active member on the network even much after it lost a large proportion of its traffic to Facebook, may be because I was too lazy to change (and possibly because I had a growing fan page on it :P). The website was continuously revamped and redesigned in the past couple of years, along with introducing unpopular features such as posting to a several people’s pages at once and making mini-communities out of your friends (seriously, is that how Brazilians like it?!). Somehow, and often hard to believe, Google never seemed to learn lessons of information clutter, spam and privacy even these became universally established rules of social communication, spearheaded by Facebook’s efforts – who clearly knew better user experience would translate to better profits in future. Nevertheless, they continued to try.

Last year, I heard rumors on Google’s secret project on building their next big social network from scratch, from a couple of technology blog websites. I never know whatever happened to those plans – as I haven’t heard any gossip about their plans, announcement on Google blogs or private invites being sent among Googler friends ever since. I also am absolutely clueless about if Google is ever planning to come up with something like this. BUT, if they were to actually take on this herculean task, I would like to see the following components as characteristics of their ideal social network:

  • Organization affiliation, and inter-organization networks: A couple of years ago, a bunch of us Information Systems students presented an idea (Connekt) that a lot of academic individuals thought was credible. The idea was building social networks of organizations and associating individuals with their real identities at these organizations. This would be a step far ahead of Facebook Pages, and would allow networking (“Build a relationship” rather than “Add as a friend”) between organizations. A bunch of other integrated Google tools, and this could really be a very unique and useful platform.
  • Heavier integration with mobile, especially Android: Again inspired by a past project titled Tukio which was based on creating social events on the fly on the web or an Android application, I think there is great potential at how social a mobile phone, especially a smart phone, can become. Android is such a well-architectured platform and is hitting the barriers of innovation and feature sets. Brain-storming with only yourself will give you an idea as to the range of things that are possible with integrating a social network and the mobile platform. Facebook has such an ordinary mobile phone app that it is almost tempting to leverage Google’s tools to build a better app (which, btw, was Tukio).
  • Google docs integration, and lessons from Wave: An absolute must I would want to see on this ideal social network’s “Pages” would be integration with Google Docs. I doubt it is going to be any more than trivial for Google to implement this, and so if Google is able to see a whole new level of collaboration on the platform the way I do, there is no reason to not do it. Also, Google has definitely learned a lot of lessons from Wave (wait, was Wave suppose to kill Facebook?) in terms of technology, usability, user adoption, etc. and so only Google is in a unique position to carry forward the lessons learned to get it right this time around.
  • A much better developer API: I wonder if Facebook intentionally wanted only the best developers to hack apps for their platform in its early years. Even until today, I do not understand how Facebook has so many applications made by third-party developers considering its poorly documented API, (X)FBML explanations and examples (although I must admit it has become FAR better in the past year). On the other hand, I believe Google is the god of developer documentation – it is really a child’s play to start using any of their public-service APIs (OAuth gets a little tricky) and ready-made examples to build your own apps. Google could use their intellectual advantage in this area to empower one of the bigger stakeholders in the process: the developers. Another thing that remains incomprehensible to me is how OpenSocial has not made a killer impact (was it just the unpopularity of Orkut?). OpenSocial is a brilliant initiative – and I would like it to evolve and improve with a new Google platform.
  • Google voice and video chat for communication: Facebook users only wish they could actually have a service so efficient and powerful as Google voice/video chat. I barely have to explain what this could do to a Google platform. My only warning is: focus on reducing clutter, hire Facebook’s information designers and philosophists (right now, we know it’s the other way) and for heavens sake, please camel case your menu links!
  • Integration with Picasa and Picnik for pictures, and YouTube for videos: I hate how I want a public photo album (ideally Picasa or if I care about having barriers to entry, Flickr) and also how only using Facebook can I make the experience truly social. And so after ever trip, I end up making the compromise by posting the pictures only on Facebook – which means I cannot share it with my parents (who I have carefully kept away from my friend list). Just for the record, I know how to copy long and meaningless URLs from the bottom of the pictures page and sending via email to people not on my list. But I want more control and flexibility – and I can only imagine how many people would like the same. I want to see Picasa integrated with this possible social network. In fact, its Google, so let me ask for a little more: I want to be able to edit my pictures using a web-based tool like Picnik. What the hell, its Google, they can do better. I want my videos to be shared with my YouTube channel (I really badly want this feature!). Now that’s a social network I will dump Facebook for!
  • Fixed privacy controls: One of the things I learned from The Facebook Effect was that Facebook’s most daunting challenge when it comes to user adoption and criticism was Privacy – at least from what it looked like to them. They continue to make their Privacy settings better and become more usable, rather than allowing people to spend a couple of hours trying to figure out how it works. I am fully aware that Google is capable of designing a privacy control tool-set that leverages and is modeled after people’s real-life social interactions and inner mind-drawn privacy maps. Usability of this tool-set is not something I am much concerned about – they know how to get it right.
  • Better caching and page resources optimization: When I spent a summer in Niue, one of the South Pacific island nations, consulting for their Ministry of Education, I had the chance to experience the true beauty of Facebook: the time it takes to load. Keeping things short and simple: the country uses VSATs for their nation-wide Internet, and when the broadband a couple of satellite dishes are distributed all throughout the country, and further using poorly-configured internal WLANs, you get speeds that are half of what you got in the golden age of dial-up Internet*. And what struck out from the entire experience of using that Internet was how well Facebook was engineered when it comes to good use of bandwidth. Although I ran ping tests on their network speeds for official reporting, I did not do any formal testing of performance of websites. But the sheer joy of Facebook loading really quickly vs. Gmail or even iGoogle taking a long time to load gave me a sense of how deeply Facebook must have examined this concern. I do not blame Google’s approach with Gmail – where it seems like they load the content of the first page messages. They seem to do something similar with Orkut – so that explains the waiting “Loading…” bar. Loading my university’s SquirrelMail setup became a far-fetched vision many a time – no wonder Facebook had become my fellow consultant’s and my primary mode of communication. I see a big scope for Google to apply their knowledge on page resource optimization and usability to deliver pages quicker, and cache as much data on user browsers or simply allow Closure to do a better job with AJAX once a minimal page has loaded.
  • Google profile’s interface: Google Profiles makes sense. It makes more sense because 3 months before Google came out with Google profile, my Web 2.0 class project team demonstrated a working prototype of our app called Know about me which had the exact same idea of the need for public user profiles with feeds and widgets offering our diverse web presence. (no, I am not boasting. It is just a coincidence how we thought of the product at almost the same time – them probably before us). I see potential in this product not being completely independent in itself – but rather an extension of a larger social network as this will reduce redundancy. Yes, redundancy is the key!
  • Support for mini-communities using Google sites (and Google Apps, groups): It bothers me how Google wants to get it right with Google sites so badly, and they are not able to do so. This is one of the other products which I feel has huge market potential, especially considering how many increasing number of people want on-the-go websites, but has not been able to do so because of poor strategies for user adoption. I have several suggestions for this product, but I can dedicate a separate post to that. Facebook Pages is certainly useful, but is not powerful – I say this with the experience of being the administrator of two different organizations’ Facebook pages. Organizations and un-organized user groups need custom presence on the web with social experience, and if you are going to tell them to use the newest release of your Python SDKs, forget it! Facebook is not doing it wrong – I just think Google can do it better because the bits of pieces of technology exist for them. Integrating the possibility of bringing a social networking experience to Google sites and possibly Google groups can do enormous amounts for this network I am fantasizing about. And why put Google Apps aside: if you have got organizations on the network (see bullet 1) and are ready to give them an opportunity to create custom social experience, why not empower them with Google Apps tools? I know someone sitting there is probably going to read this and say,  “dream on, dude” – but however hard I hit myself to make sure I am being sane, I continue to think that this is a real possibility.
  • Integration with Chrome OS: I will refrain from talking too much about this because my knowledge on the Chrome/Chromium OS is very little (long live Ubuntu!). All I want to say is that if Windows 7 can be natively and inherently social with Facebook, why not Google’s <utopian social network> with Chrome OS?
  • The everything recommendation systems: Dear Google, I sympathize with you and realize you need to have a good business model for building such a massive product. This might be a little specific and probably requires more depth and thought than I am giving in, but I see potential for this platform to become a real engine of recommendations. From tech products to books (notice how I am using examples of areas Google search is already active in :P), the only advertising on its pages could be real product recommendations based on user behavior, keywords from wall posts and internal searches, and thy powerful knowledge of the user’s Chrome usage. This will be truly pervasive AND enjoyable advertising, and not something that will hurt the user’s eyes.
  • Location-based services: I doubt I even need to mention this, as this would definitely be on the minds of the teams working on such a product. Google Latitude’s user base is far behind what it could be – and in my opinion, this is because a location-based service such as this does not carry as much value when it is independent as does an average product along these lines in a huge social networking ecosystem as Facebook. There is just enormous possibilities of what a well-engineered product like Latitude could do to this platform.
  • Buzzzzzz: Google already has their short-post feed service, which works absolutely well (or is it just my friends’ sarcastic and humorous posts everyday?!). Although, I wish they found a better home for this product. I wish they created this new social platform as Buzz’s new home.

Yet again, I admit that these are very early thoughts and simply brainstorming within my own brain for hopes of discovering an oligopoly in the market of ultimate social networking (I am sorry, Twitter does not qualify!). If you have great ideas (actually, that’s for Google to decide :P), feel free to abuse the comments feature on this post. I wonder how I have configured the design files of this WordPress template to deal with pagination of comments, so I really do not mind the free user-testing!

 

(If anyone from Google cares about the opinions brought out in this post, and think that they need some external agnostic, meaningful and honest user insight into helping this platform become adoptable, I am happy to do a semester long grad-school independent study on this subject)

* Bandwidth wasn’t the biggest problem – but just like any other satellite Internet installation – it was mostly latency and delay. We never managed to get a Skype call through. I think we were hitting ~1000ms as the best time to ping an american Google.com server IP. Not that bandwidth was any great – I am guessing 2-4 KB downlink during peak-hours was usually a good sign.

2 thoughts on “The ideal Google social network”

  1. …and Google launches Google+ 2 days after this post comes out. And you will observe for yourself how many of the above concerns have been addressed. Interesting!

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