Now that Kim Kardashian is on Google+, can we say the service has arrived? Nothing signals the success of a social network or propels its growth more than power users, the influentials who boast both clout and Klout. Their mass followings can drive a service's success, from celebs-turned-techies (Ashton Kutcher) to techies-turned-celebs (Robert Scoble). It's why startups such as Viddy have gotten Charlie Sheen and Paris Hilton involved; it's why Lady Gaga and Barack Obama have been so important to Twitter's cred; it's why Google+ has roped in artists like Will.i.am.; and it's why Sean Parker recently warned that Facebook is threatened because "power users have gone to Twitter or Google+."
Bradley Horowitz, the Google product VP who oversees Google+, says his team is focused as much on whispers (more intimate online interaction) as they are shouts, meaning more public, podium-style projections. Circles, the feature that enables users to organize their relationships, allows for both use cases.
"The shout is very much about power users: pundits, celebrities, journalists, musicians, rap stars, models," Horowitz says. "These communities have discovered that Google+ is a great place to have a voice—it's a great podium to reach an audience. Individuals like Guy Kawasaki and Robert Scoble and Trey Ratcliff have amassed huge followings on our service, that have happened quicker than both they and we expected in terms of attracting an audience."
Not all networks have adopted the power user strategy. When I asked Dave Morin, founder and CEO of Path, whether he's friends with Justin Bieber or Kim Kardashian online, he said, laughing, "No, no, definitely not." For Morin, who spoke recently at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored conference, power users are both a gift and a curse—a tool to goose growth, certainly, but a vehicle for diminishing a network's intimacy.
"In the early days it can seem like the growth is very different than some of these more trendy high-growth plays, which jump after the public side of the Internet," Morin said. (Path recently cracked the one million user mark, whereas Google+ has passed 40 million users at last count.) "It's very easy to get Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber to play with your new startup, and get a whole bunch of people on it very quickly. You can go in that direction and achieve a very high level of growth very quickly."
The downside, however, is that such growth can be hard to sustain and possibly hurt the quality of social sharing. He'd prefer curating a more intimate social graph, rather than one filled with power users, even it means slower growth.
"At Path, we actually think [it's very valuable] to connect users to the people they're truly closest to—each incremental user and each incremental connection is very valuable," Morin said. "If you were at your dinner table and someone new came in, and sat down, you would all change your behavior. If we incentivize that then we're doing a disservice to our user experience. It's harder—it's a lot harder. It's something that we're willing to do to try to achieve that high-quality network."
Of course, with Google's massive audience, it's inevitable celebrities and power users would join the network. But Horowitz and crew has invested significant time and resources to make sure its Circles feature produces both the safe, intimate environments for a whisper, and the booming, bullhorn audience for a shout.
Perhaps that's why Kim Kardashian has joined Google+. I wonder if she'll add me to her Circle? I hear a new spot might've just opened up.
[Image: Flicker user AshleyCooper]