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Google+ vs. Facebook vs. Twitter vs. ... Part 3: The Plausible Rationales beyond Circles

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Dr Michael WuMichael Wu, Ph.D. is 927iC9C1FD6224627807Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and group behavior in online communities and social networks.


Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to Social CRM.He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere's Building Community blog and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter or Google+.



As you can see, this is the third installment of the mini-series that explores the behavioral implications of social platforms from their network properties. Since this post uses many network concepts introduced in the first two articles, I recommend reviewing them before diving into today’s topic.

  1. Part 1: The Strength of Bidirectional Connections – Facebook
  2. Part 2: The Danger of a One-Way Fast Lane – Twitter


Today, I will take a look at Google+ and try to understand why Google+ chose its current set of features over others. Of course this will be a little speculative, but I will try to show you the logic behind my speculation.



name google-plus_web.pngGoogle+ is like Twitter in that it requires only unidirectional consent to connect. This contributed to its rapid growth rate, reaching 25 million users within one month of the field trial period. However, unidirectional consent also makes the network noisier. To deal with the noise, Google+ has Circles that enables receiver curation. If you recall from my last post, doesn’t this starts to sound like Twitter all over again. But will Google+ turn into a glorified Twitter?

  1. If people don’t spend the time to put their connections into the proper circles, then Google+ can certainly turn into another noisy stream.
  2. However, even if people spend the time and categorized their connections into appropriate Circles, there is still no guarantee that receiver curation is strong enough a filtering mechanism to deal with the noise.


Google handles both of these problems well through their user experience design. To encourage the use of Circle, Google+ gamified their Circle Editor. Not only did Google made it very simple to categorize people’s connection, they also made it fun. To deal with the second problem, Circles enable an additional curation mechanism: sender curation. Google+ users can selectively share to different subsets or supersets of their connections using a combination of individuals, circles, extended circles, or public.


A couple of points about the sender curation mechanism deserve highlighting:

  1. It is not unique to Google+. In fact, any bidirectional network (e.g. Facebook and Linkedin) will automatically inherit both sender and receiver curation mechanisms. That’s why the information tends to be more relevant on those platforms.
  2. Its effectiveness depends on sharing behavior of the information sender. If the information senders do not curate their content and blindly share it to the public, then the sender curation mechanism would be ineffective.


Competing with a Big Sticky Network

So why did Google+ choose unidirectional consent when there is a critical dependency on the unknown (or at least uncertain) sharing behavior of their users? I can’t imagine folks at Google didn’t anticipate the noise issue after observing the noise level on Twitter, Quora, and other unidirectionally-connected network. So I speculate this is probably an effort to combat the stickiness of the Facebook platform.


Sumo vs kid web.jpgRecall that highly interconnected Facebook users who could bring lots of friends to Google+ are precisely those that are least likely to switch. That is because these users would experience the greatest inconvenience (i.e. a loss of utility) on the new platform. On Google+ they wouldn’t be able to communicate with their friends until they rebuild the large network they had, and that’s going to take time. And it will take much more time if Google choose the bidirectional consent mechanism. Granted that people don’t really have to commit to a hard switch; they can be on both platforms, since both are free. But if people don’t regain their lost utility quickly, Google+ won’t be able to convert users form Facebook.


The only effective way to break a cohesive network is to magically move a huge chunk of their user base to the new network in a short time, so user only experience a short period of communication outage. And this magic is only possible on a unidirectionally-connected network. It is also plausible that Google+ is only using the unidirectional network to grow. And once a critical mass of user base is reach, they can then implement the bidirectional consent mechanism to reap the benefit of a bidirectional network.


As we’ve learned from Twitter, unidirectional networks are brittle and the connections are weak. People can quickly build and rebuild their unidirectional network easily. So if Google isn’t careful, Google+ could turn into the next bot farm, which will quickly degrade the user experience on the platform. To deal with this problem, Google enforced the real name policy, which is clearly not a wise move. They could have solved this problem through a back door method leveraging the tagging data on photos or people’s email network, which is fairly unique from one individual to the next.


Community Building on Google+

Aside from its social network, Google+ also provides a lot of community and relationship building tools. If you recall from my mini-series on Cyber-Anthropology, social networks and communities have complementary roles in the development of human relationships. Community is typically where relationships first establish, and where weak ties develop into strong ties. A social network is where these strong relationships are maintained. In the real world, these two social structures overlap.


Google+ not only made it easy for people to find content they are passionate about via Spark, selective sharing to people with the same interest is made easy with Circles. And if there is ever a need for high-bandwidth face-to-face communication, you can start a Hangout (Google+’s video group chat) with up to 10 people. These tools enable relevant groups of users to hold conversations about a common interest, which can eventually develop into real relationships. So Google+ is not only a social network, it is overlay with communities, which is how we operate in real life.



Google+ is really like a hybrid between Facebook and Twitter. It is like Twitter, because it is a unidirectionally connected network. This inevitably made the network very noisy, brittle, and an easy target as a bot hideout. However, that is what it takes to convert users from a competing network that is very big and cohesive.


Google’s initial attempts to deal with these unwanted side effects of unidirectional networks include:

  1. Enabling both sender and receiver curation mechanisms via Circle. However, this is not as effective as the inherited sender/receiver curation mechanism on Facebook, because people have the tendency to share to public by default
  2. Enforcing the real name policy, which didn’t work too well either
  3. Implementing community and relationship building tools on the platform


Google+ is not perfect yet. However, given the fact that it’s only a month old, I think they did a phenomenal job. In my next post, I will line up these social platforms side by side and compare them. There is a clear winner coming out of all these, but it’s not what you would have expected, and you might even be disappointed to find out. So you’ve been warned! Come back next time for the exciting conclusion!




About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
Frequent Commentator
Frequent Commentator

Hi Mike!

Thx for clear analysis of G+ weaks and potentially strongs. 


Know, I think no one social network today has balanced tools to curate people and content flexible enough without demaging established strong ties (everone "friend" does not post only smth you always like - people follow multi-thematic publishing behavior) OR over-curate content in some ways (# by Twitter or topics by Quora).


I think, next gen social network must combate this issue through implementing savvy search (=filtering) mechanics "on fly" - without noisity of sometimes ineffective social filtering (EdgeRank of FB) for best relevant content delivering and develop savvy ways to recieve relevant ties from on-graph navigation throuout wide networks of your good established personal network. 


So I am some speculative, but why not? 🙂


Not applicable

Agree strongly vis that Google 'can't lift chunks of the social graph' from FB. Beyond the network dynamics, I think G+ also has a cultural problem. Since G+ hasn't grown organically, it's a Frankenstein. One subnet or another may thrive (as with Orkut in Brazil) but a globally vital network is unlikely. More thoughts on this theme here:

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Andrei,

Thanks again for the comment.

Yes, the ultimate relationship management / content curation tool doesn't exist yet. It is not easy to create one that understand our context that can give us the right level of filter at the right time. That is because our friends and share some common community with us in different part of our personal history (see Cyber Anthropology: A Unified View of Communities and Social Networks). Since people move between communities, their topic of interest at any time is an unique combination of all the communities they have been in the past. That is one of the main reason why people are multifaceted. We have multiple interest and share content from variety of subjects.

I think that Facebook’s EdgeRank is a good filter for picking out the content that you are most likely to interact with. It is a very good start. But the ultimate filter should be able to figure out the common interest between you and the people you connect with, so it basically identifies the relevant context between you and your connections. Once we can do that, it would be much easier to show content around the relevant context.

Let’s see who’s going to build that...

OK, thanks for commenting and see you next time.

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Henry,


Thank you for stopping by and commenting.


However, I don’t see why you would say that G+ is not grown or built organically. Certainly there are some seeding initially. But the rest are all grown via friend’s invitation organically. I don’t think Orkut is part of the G+ network. At least not yet (see Why Orkut will Survive Google+ (for Now), or Google: Orkut Will Co-exist With Google+).


Personally, I believe cultural difference within a social network is not a problem. That is, it will not destabilize the network. Consider the Facebook network, it is a huge network made up of very different cultures. Even within my own personal social network, I have connections from very diverse and distant cultures.


So I can't help to disagree with your claim that G+ will fail for certain. It may still end up failing at some point, and we can never be sure. However, cultural difference is not likely to be the cause of its demise.


Nevertheless, I appreciate your opinion. Thanks again for the comment and see you next time.

Occasional Commentator gummy123
Occasional Commentator

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Occasional Commentator gummy123
Occasional Commentator
i agree that aside from other social network, Google+ also provides a lot of community and relationship building tools such as Magento 2 Social Login, Magento 2 Mega Menu
New Commentator

Even Google gives the highest priority to G+ Page other than any other social site also "Google My Business" helps a lot.

Occasional Commentator xinzuab
Occasional Commentator

Google+ also provides a lot of community and relationship building tools such as



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