How Spaces Might Just Break Google’s Social Media Curse
On May 16, Google announced Google Spaces, their latest social app. Spaces is theoretically a messaging app, but its focus on media content (rather than individual conversations) makes it seem closer to a Pinterest or Tumblr competitor. So far, there are three content post types: links, photos, and text, and it seems to be heavily geared towards mobile use. Being brand new, there are still a few bugs and iffy design choices, but as time passes and Spaces sees more use, these issues are likely to be ironed out. It’s hard to say exactly what niche Spaces is intended to fill, but if it manages to get off the ground, we’ll soon find out.
Social Media: Google’s White Whale
To skeptics, that’s a mighty big if. Google does not have a stellar track record when it comes to social media, but their perseverance is admirable. So far, they’ve made four attempts to hit it big since 2004. Okurt was their first social media site, and it ran from 2004 to 2010, but it really only saw widespread success India and Brazil, and it was plagued with frequent security issues. Then came Google Friend Connect in 2008, a site similar in design to MySpace and Facebook. That was shut down in 2012, and Google Buzz in 2010 only lasted a year. Google+ launched in 2011 to replace it, and while it’s still kicking around, it hasn’t seen the popularity that other social media sites like Twitter or Facebook have.
It leads one to wonder why Google keeps trying, when they’ve had such little success. Surely they have other, more interesting projects they could be focusing on, right?
The easy, cynical answer is money. Social media sites gather large numbers of users, and when paired with Google’s ad services, that’s quite the cash cow they’d be sitting on. But social media has practically been around since the 80s, when systems like BBS boards, CompuServe, and yes, even email got their start.
While these systems aren’t what we typically think of when use the words social media today, they made the internet a more social place by allowing users to communicate with each other. As innovators, it makes sense for developers at Google to want to play with and experiment with this technology, and with its open-ended design and undefined purpose, that’s what Spaces seems to be. What Google seems to have done is take the general idea of social media, software designed to allow users to create, share, or exchange media, and give it form.
Why Niche Matters
Unfortunately, the generality of Spaces may be the cause of its downfall. While it’ll be interesting to see what direction Spaces will inevitably take, the thing that has made social media platforms so successful over the years is specialization.
One of the first social networking sites, Classmates.com, was successful because it answered a very specific question: “Is there a way for me to connect to my old classmates?” Even if users couldn’t make profiles like later social networking sites, the answer, as it turned out, was yes, and even now the website boasts about 5.7 million registered accounts.
All of the successful social media sites running today have a specific need they work to fill, whether it’s sharing images on Instagram or keeping up with friends on Facebook. Spaces just doesn’t have a defined purpose, and for many people, not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing with it may prevent users from trying it at all.
Another thing to consider is that the general concept of sharing is not particularly unique. There are plenty of other sites out there that already revolve around some manner of media or text sharing, like Pinterest, Tumblr, and yes, Facebook. Google needs to produce something revolutionary to pull people away from their established favorites, and Spaces’ collaborative aspect might not be enough.
And that’s really what Google’s expressed goal with Spaces is right now: pulling people from the apps they already use to congregate on their app instead. As Stuff.co.nz phrased it, they’re looking for the position of One Social Platform to Rule Them All. Of course, the way they phrased it in the blog post announcing the app doesn’t sound so sinister, but when there are so many other apps out there that people are having trouble agreeing on which one to use, it’s possible that there really isn’t much point in creating another unless you know that you can blow the others out of the water.
Google+ didn’t even make the Top 10 this year. Does Spaces have what it takes to compete with the big boys? Image courtesy of MarketingCharts.com
Down, But Certainly Not Out
So with all that discouraging talk for a brand new app, is there any chance at all for poor Spaces? Yes, absolutely! Spaces is heavily geared towards mobile use, and Google boasts the position of being the second (and occasionally first) most popular operating system for mobile devices. If it comes pre-installed and with an easy set-up process, it may have a chance to break into the mainstream, simply because it’ll be the most convenient social app to use.
Does that reinforce the evil overlords vibe a little bit? Maaaaybe, but as it stands, many people don’t have a reason to abandon their current social media apps. One of Google’s big selling points is how well integrated all of their apps are; with just one account, you have access to their whole range of productivity, entertainment, and social apps. If Spaces integrates nicely with all of Google’s other products and comes pre-installed on Android phones, as people upgrade, they simply won’t have a reason to pick up their old apps. This will then trigger the other thing Spaces will need to be a successful social app: the network effect.
As people play with their new phone, and play with their new app, they’ll tell other people about it – or rather, they’ll invite friends to join their Spaces. Because even people with older Androids have Google accounts, it’ll be easy for them to pick up and start using, and they’re more likely to do it if there’s a ringing endorsement from someone they know and trust. Before long, they’ll be inviting more people to join their Spaces to start sharing content as well!
Right now, Spaces is too new to say where it’s going for sure, but at the same, it’s too early to completely dismiss its potential. For the time being, Google needs to spend a little time ironing out the bugs, but once it starts getting it into the hands of users, Spaces could easily find the momentum it needs to finally be the crown jewel in Google’s app empire.