We're only weeks into the launch of social network Google+, and the search giant's answer to Facebook is adding some big numbers to its userbase. After spreading invitations to a select few to goose demand, letting the network spread virally, and then shutting down the invite mechanism due to "insane demand" (before reopening it shortly later), Google Plus has already shot past 10 million users. "There was a lot of buzz created around it being exclusive, but it really wasn't that exclusive," says George Gallate, global chairman of digital ad agency Euro RSCG 4D, complimenting Google's rollout of Google Plus. "Their marketing was very clever."
Yet even after overcoming the hurdle of the social network's rollout (especially compared to the failed launches of Google Buzz, Orkut, and Wave), there's still the giant hurdle of the social network's user retention. It's one thing to get people to register for the service, but it's an entirely different headache to keep them on the network—to create active users, in other words. "I think they're going to have an issue with real activation," Gallate says. "To take off, and hit that 750 million user mark, people are going to have to pay a lot less attention to Facebook, and a lot more attention to Google Plus."
Unfortunately, one of its biggest differentiators, which initially attracted users to the service—Google+ Circles—may also be one of the network's biggest turnoffs.
The issue with Circles, the feature that enables users to categorize their friends into various social groups, is fatigue. If you're a member of the services, it's likely you've already received dozens and dozens of adds from acquaintances on the network. Many found that it was initially fun to classify these contacts into groups, especially with a slick UI designed by ex-Apple "wizard" Andy Hertzfeld. But soon, some found the fun task became a chore. "I fell in love with the interface as soon as I got it, but I did realize that I'm going to end up with too many circles," Gallate says. "I can see there being limitations in managing large number of Circles, despite how good [Google's] promotional videos are. I can see I'm going to get to a point where I might've been a little bit too clever with the number of Circles I started."
Gigaom's Mathew Ingram chalks it up to what psychologist Barry Schwartz has called the "Paradox of Choice," meaning that "too much choice actually makes it less likely [users] will take advantage of a feature." He adds, "The process of filtering hundreds or even thousands of people into groups is time-consuming and somewhat frustrating," and could cause Circles fatigue. AllThingsD strikes a similar tone, highlighting just how complicated friending is on Google Plus compared to other networks.
Personally, I've already started to feel that fatigue. In playing around with Google Plus in the past weeks, I've started to feel that Google Plus is asking too much from me. Rather than classify my contacts as I might subconsciously in real life—as family, friends, or coworkers—I've been forced to consciously determine my relationships with these people online. Suddenly I was dealing with add requests from distant acquaintances from college extracurricular programs; from friends' parents; from friends of friends; from friends of a friends' girlfriends; from colleagues I like and from colleagues I don't; from forgotten ex-coworkers; from strangers; from enemies, even.
It's overwhelming. Perhaps I'm slightly OCD, but even the process of creating a group name has become a hassle. I had friends from "Fast Company" and then friends from "FastCompany.com;" roommates from "6E" (my apartment number) and roommates from college; and even a group called "Top Gun," whose purpose I struggle to remember. Several of my Circles had just one "friend." A "Circle" of one might sound a little zen, but it mostly just sounds sad. After a while, I simply gave up.
Have you started to experience Circles fatigue, too?
That's not to say any other social network has solved the issue of grouping friends. Facebook, with its 750 million users, is an incredibly messy social graph—the average user has 130 friends. It's why so many smaller, more tightly controlled social graphs have risen in popularity, from Instagram and Path (for photo-sharing) to Foursquare (for location-sharing) to LinkedIn (for business contacts). Mark Zuckerberg has gone so far as to say that grouping friends is the "biggest problem in social networking."
Google Plus might have a sleek solution with Circles, but it's one that requires a great deal of effort.
[Image: Flickr user neon.mamacita]