Google’s Big Idea:
Google launched their brand new Social Network Google+ a couple of weeks back. I was lucky enough to get an early invite on the very first day it launched. I immediately signed in with my Google (gmail) account. As I started reading about Circles my heart skipped a beat and I let out a sigh. I also wacked myself on the side of my head and said to myself “Ah, there goes my big idea”. More on that later. But first let us see why it is a “big idea” at all for a social network.
The Problem With Facebook:
Ever since I started using Facebook a few years back, I realized that their basic social networking model was not how real-life social networks worked. Neither my son, nor my daughter were friends with either me or my wife on Facebook. They refused our friend requests with words to the effect – “How weird if you could see our Facebook wall! Sorry, dad!”. It would be like us barging in unannounced into their room or into a party and hang out with their friends. It just would not work. We later found out that this was a common problem for most parents and their kids. There was something wrong with a social network where we couldn’t be “friends” with our own kids.
It then dawned on me that this problem was just a specific instance of the general problem of mixing heterogeneous networks. If you have a get-together at home for close friends, you don’t invite your boss or coworkers. They don’t even find out about it. If you throw an office party you don’t invite your neighbors. That is how real life works: our social lives are divided into different worlds – and those worlds seldom collide. (No one explains this better than George Costanza from Seinfeld – see his hilarious “colliding worlds” rant in this Youtube video ). What Facebook essentially asked us to do was to forget this complex, layered social model which is so much part of our nature and replace it with a simple, flat model that has little or no similarity to real life. Facebook basically took all your social relationships, and rolled them all into a single homogeneous network where everyone was suddenly a “friend”. Our online social lives had regressed to that of a large communal college dorm. It was not just a problem of kids sharing their network with their parents, but also of acquaintances, in-laws, neighbors, close friends, classmates from school, college, coworkers, your boss, the guy you met at a party, even customers, and sometimes your business partners – all trying to share the same network and channel as your “friends” . Facebook does now offer Groups and lists to allow selective sharing. But Facebook was never designed from the ground up to do this. This was added as an afterthought recently, and it is not an easy feature to either discover or use. It is not a core, important feature of Facebook and is rarely used by its users.
Why Facebook Got It Wrong:
It is also not really surprising that Facebook was designed this way. Facebook was conceived and invented by 19 year-old Mark Zuckerberg and his classmates, from their college dorm in Harvard. At that stage in life, we have fairly simple social networks with very few layers. Essentially it is a large and fairly homogeneous network comprised mostly of friends and classmates. There is not much privacy and almost everything is shared. It is only when we grow older, get jobs, get married, have kids, move into a new neighborhood that we start leading a life in multiple worlds and multiple networks each requiring some degree of isolation from the other. It is not surprising therefore that the nuanced complexity of real-life social interactions escaped Zuckerberg and his cofounders. They simply modeled Facebook on a college sophomore’s social world view – which is quite different from how it works in the real world.
So I was thinking of this problem and the solution was obvious – create a social network that models real-life by separating your worlds and allowing you to interact with them on separate channels. One way to separate your worlds would be into groups as Facebook does. But it is not this simple. Human beings are complex social creatures, exquisitely sensitive to notions of inclusion and exclusion, as well as social status and hierarchy. There are unwritten social rules we all know intuitively. We do not overtly state how close we feel to an acquaintance, a relative or a friend. We share things with people based on how close we feel to them, which depends upon how we mentally categorize our relationship. And therein lies the big difference between Google+ circles and Facebook groups and lists. Groups are an overt categorization while Circles are private and better reflect how we think about relationships.
And therein lay the opportunity. In fact, this is exactly what I wrote in an earlier blog post on “Is Facebook Unstoppable “, back in November 2010. Here is the excerpt:
“In my view, Facebook does not accurately model the nuances and dynamics of real-life social networks. Facebook’s model is flat and linear but real life social networks are complex and hierarchical. And that according to me is where the opportunity lies for any Davids that wants to challenge the Facebook Goliath.”
My Big Idea, Circles, Hubs and VISH.COM
Which brings me to explain my earlier statement “”There goes my big idea”. While some may find this hard to believe it is a true story. You see the ideas I have stated above about how real-life social networks work have been brewing in my head for a while. In fact sometime in 2004, a year after a reunion of my MBA class from IIM Ahmedabad, I had written up specifications for a website to allow classmates to stay in touch with each other. It was mainly aimed to replace our Yahoo Groups (which is not much more than a glorified mailing list server even to this date). It had the usual features of a social network – sharing updates, pictures, private messaging, groups etc. But it also had the concept of nested “groups” – so you could have your dorm-mates in a small group, that would be part of a larger group of classmates, which in turn would be part of a larger group of all alumni and so on. One key feature was the ability to use the site to have different types of interactions with each group – so messages or photos shared with your dorm-mates would not be broadcast to the larger group . However, that project never took off, as we were busy building web applications for paying clients as part of our web services business.
In 2006, we did finally launch a social networking website called VISH.COM (reusing a great 4 letter domain name we has owned since 1997). I created the acronym Virtually Interconnected Social Hubs to fit the domain name VISH. Hubs was to be an extension of my concept of nested groups . We built VISH.COM using a ready-made PHP script that was purchased with source code. The idea was to customize it to allow nested groups or Hubs to be setup. We hired a PHP programmer to customize the site, but he quite in a couple of months and so again the project was shelved for some time. Sometime in 2008, when I started using Facebook I quickly realized how broken their social model was. I also realized that my concept of Hubs would be a way of solving that problem – as we could use it to separate our different real life networks. Then in Nov 2010, our social networking website VISH.COM – was hacked and compromised. So we shut it down and decided to relaunch it only after we had developed a brand new website from scratch that fully implemented the Hubs concept. Vish.com currently redirects to our Indian web portal India4u.com but you can view its original home page from 2006 and later at the internet archives here.
I had written brand new specifications that allowed you to create Hubs and select which Hub you would place a person into (without them knowing which hub they belonged to). Each hub would get a “wall” which you could post to – and only people in that hub would be able to view and post to that wall. There was also an option to have a public wall which everyone could read and post to. When I now look at Circles and then at Hubs, they appear identical in almost every respect – except that Hubs can also be nested. Hubs are a core feature of Vish.com just like Circles are of Google+. Incidentally, early users of Google+ are clamoring for nested circles. Which is why I wacked myself on the side of the head and sighed – Google+ was using exactly what I thought was “my big idea”. There are of course many differences between Vish.com and Google+ – but the concept of circles and hubs is almost identical. While we had no ambitions of competing against Facebook or Google, I only wish I had launched Vish before Google+ stole our thunder, so we could claim that we had done Circles before Google! For now, we are not sure if we should continue developing Vish.com – as the big idea in no longer unique, and who can compete with Google? Of course, time will tell if indeed Circles (or Hubs) is indeed the “big idea” that will change social networking. The initial reaction from early users and my gut instinct tells me it will have a major impact. And sometimes you just need to go with your gut and believe in your big idea before someone else proves you were right all along.
Seinfeld in the Youtube video below).