Ever since Google launched its social networking service Google+ it has been compared to Facebook (including by MIT Technology Review, see “Q&A: Bradley Horowitz”). The story goes that Google got scared by the upstart’s success and tried – and is failing - to create a similar social network of its own. But three years into that effort it now looks more like Facebook is following Google+ than the other way round.
At least, that’s an implication of what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has begun saying about his strategy. In an interview with the New York Times last month he explained that his company is now working on “unbundling the big blue app.” That means taking what Facebook has been up to now – a website or app you visit to see a feed of updates from friends and post your own – and splintering it into many separate and more specialized services.
This strategy isn’t entirely new. It’s how the highly successful Instagram and Facebook Messenger apps work today. But Zuckerberg has now made it clear that he’s committing to moving away from what Facebook used to be. What was the core of Facebook is becoming a kind of login service, which provides your digital identity and some social connections to a suite of single-purpose apps and services.
That’s what Google+ is today. Although you can use the service like the original Facebook, it seems relatively few people do (we lack objective data) and Google looks to be retreating from that idea. In practice, Google+ is a kind of unified identity service that links up your actions inside Google’s various products, from your YouTube activity to your Hangouts video chats to app, movie, and music purchases made on Android mobile devices.
That’s also what Zuckerberg seems to be working towards with his “unbundling” strategy. The Facebook cofounder told the New York Times that this approach was needed because mobile devices make people prefer “single-purpose, first class experiences” rather than multi-functional ones like the one Facebook has traditionally offered.
Another reason could be that the Facebook model of social networking has run its course. Some people who have used the service for years find the newsfeed a turnoff these days. The clutter of many different friends, relatives, and acquaintances doesn’t produce compelling content, and makes a difficult audience to post content for.
People don’t seem interested in pruning or categorizing their friend lists to address the problem. Google+ has failed to catch on as a social destination despite putting its “circles” feature to do that at the core of the service. Further evidence that people aren’t so interested in the newsfeed any more comes from the lack of success of two recent Facebook experiments, Paper and Home, both of which essentially just repackage newsfeed content.
There are benefits to end users in the unbundled strategy that Facebook and Google have seemingly agreed on. Google’s disparate services now work better together. Facebook’s adoption of the strategy means that popular services that it acquires don’t necessarily get shut down or forcibly integrated into its existing products. Instagram and WhatsApp, for example, continue much as they did before.
Of course, an unbundled future also helps Facebook and Google’s efforts to make money off of data on human behavior. Since March 2012, ads that Google shows to you can be chosen by analyzing signals from activity linked to a your Google identity. Facebook is moving in a similar direction. Last year the company merged data from Instagram activity into its main stockpile. As the unbundling continues, Facebook should get a better understanding than ever of the people using its services.