Fred Wilson has a post up today in which he uses Google’s upcoming social effort to highlight why he thinks individual social sites win out over social layers that seek to aggregate content.
Q. Why did Twitter succeed and FriendFeed fail?
A. Because FriendFeed was largely a social aggregator whereas Twitter is a service with specific social intent.
I think this is an important distinction. I have not seen any breakout social layers. The social services that have broken out to date have been services where a user has a very specific intent.
Social engagements are weird out of context. Comments to this blog make perfect sense on this blog but less sense when they are tweeted out into a Twitter stream or show up in FriendFeed.
There is value in social aggregation but not huge value.
The main problem I have with Mr. Wilson’s point is he’s arguing functionality in an area where functionality is trumped by other concerns. So while he’s right that social engagement suffers in an aggregated environment I think he’s wrong in assuming users will treat that as their primary concern. Let me explain…
Point #1: The aggregator will always take hold in a growing information industry.
The problem with a growing information industry is that it creates too much information and people are limited by the time available to them. Since time is a limited resource people are generally willing to give up functionality to use less of it.
Think of an iPhone. You’d absolutely get more functionality from a separate digital camera, iPod touch and smart phone. But pocket space is a limited resource. So you choose a device with slightly less functionality to save pocket space.
The same is true here. In a growing information industry time will always be the limiting factor which means people will always treat it as their primary motivator. Even if it means giving up superior social engagement. But I think there’s more to Google’s strategy here…
Point #2: Aggregators turn individual sites into parts of their whole and in doing so rob individual sites of their “Mind Share”
I once asked a friend of mine what her favorite part of Facebook was and she, without pause, said Farmville. The point here isn’t her love of Farmville but the fact that she thought it was “part of Facebook”. Because to her Facebook has defined itself as the portal to Farmville and in doing so has used the game to enhance its own brand.
Some will say that’s because of her lack of savvy but I reject that. Because I’m pretty savvy in the ways of the web and I see the same behavior in myself.
Around 90% of my personal browsing is derived from three aggregation sites (Techmeme, Memeorandum and WeSmirch) and I don’t often pay attention to the individual sites that make up that content.
Point #3: Aggregators can use their leverage to beat content sites
Once an aggregation site is dominant it can give its own services preferential treatment. So it pays for a company like Google to do whatever it can to become the aggregator of information even if its goal is to establish services with specific social intent. Because being the aggregator gives them a lot of leverage.
That brings us back to Google’s social layer. What they seem to be doing is leveraging the specific intent sites they have to make themselves the dominant aggregator. If that works they can leverage their position as the dominant aggregator to create more sites with specific social intent. In doing so they create a positive feedback loop that could reestablish Google as the center of the web universe.