And why Google+ won't be replacing Twitter or Facebook for most of us anytime soon
"Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people."
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
I know too much already has been written about Google+ and its place in the world of social networking, but I've recently developed a new perspective which might help some of you who are trying to decide how and when to use Google+ versus Twitter or Facebook.
Eleanor might have said "small minds discuss people," but there's more than one way to discuss people and none of us are consistently small-minded. People are important, and the people who are most important to us are those with which we have mutual friendships or family relationships. This is why Facebook is best at people: it enforces (if we ignore fan pages) a symmetric follower model, ensuring that we are connected to people who want to also be connected to us. Those connections, often with people who we don't see regularly but want to keep in touch with, are more important than the comments and conversation people post on their Wall. If your Facebook News Feed is anything like mine, you know what I'm talking about. But that's okay -- I use Facebook because my friends and family mean more to me than their latest post, and it's why we shouldn't worry about a mass exodus from Facebook anytime soon.
Beyond friendships and family, we are connected to others through common events. When fire broke out over the foothills of Boulder about a year ago, it didn't matter that I didn't personally know many other people in the area. What mattered was our shared experience and our desire to understand the event beyond our own perspective. This is why Twitter is best at events: those of us affected were able to congregate around the #boulderfire and other hashtags. Twitter didn't allow us to say much at once, but that was okay. No one person should dominate such a conversation. When someone did emerge as particularly insightful or resourceful, Twitter's asymmetric follower model allowed us to follow them without them following us back. Today, on the ten-year anniversary of 9-11, I know I'm not alone in wondering what that day would have been like had we had Twitter, fail whales and all. No tool allows us to so spontaneously engage in an event quite like Twitter -- it really is the internet's nervous system.
Sometimes our interactions with people and events spark deeper thought. Eventually we not only want to say more, we want to ask more. We want a space where we can engage with other people around our reflections and questions. This is why Google+ is best at ideas: it allows us a flexible space and a flexible audience with which we can have a cohesive conversation around an idea or belief. Great conversation emerges from great ideas, and great ideas are evidence of great minds. And when our minds aren't so great (which, let's face it, is most of the time), Google+'s threaded conversations allow participants (who may or may not follow each other) to push and shape the idea into something better. As Google+ gains capabilities (search, tagging, public circles, etc.) the way we find these conversations may change, but I think Google+'s focus on ideas will remain. And I think Eleanor would have liked it.
So while Facebook is best for people, Twitter is best for events, and Google+ is best for ideas, that in no way means that you can't discuss an event on Facebook or maintain close relationships on Google+. The reason that these are currently our most prominent and successful social networks is because we can use them in more than one way. But as with any set of tools, knowing which is the right one for the job makes each tool more useful. When I see a "I'm headed out to eat" post on Google+, it feels empty because I'm not sure how I can engage in a conversation around that idea. Maybe the person who posted that needs to pick a different tool or create a circle with a more relevant audience. I'm happy to follow a lot of smart educators on Twitter, but when their posts turn into a conversation, I feel handcuffed. Not only is it hard to reply to multiple people and restrain an important thought to 140 characters, I realize I can't easily see the other replies from people I'm not following. And while I might try to discuss an idea or event on Facebook, I usually don't get much response. Other than being my friends, people who see what I post on Facebook really don't have all that much in common.
If you use all three social networks, as I do, think before you post. Think about which tool is the best for the job. But also realize that because there's more than one job to do, there's room for more than one network. Now pardon me as my desire to educate combines with my ego to shamelessly share this post on all three.