Ever since Google+ came out (as an invitation-only field-trial version) on June 28, the online community has been anticipating a head-to-head battle between the search engine giant and Facebook. That moment has yet to come, but in the meantime, Facebook and Google+ have each announced some major enhancements to their respective sites.
In July and August, Facebook launched several new features including video calling and group chat functions, two much-needed improvements in light of Google’s Hangouts feature. See “Google Learns to Facebook” for more information on Hangouts and other basic features on Google+. Facebook also launched Subscriptions, a Twitter-like tool that lets you follow people you’re not friends with, and more nuanced privacy settings, especially for photo tagging.
Then, shortly before Facebook’s developer conference, f8, was to take place on September 22, the web began circulating rumors of some truly radical changes. These included the addition of new activity-specific buttons to join the Like button – Read, Listened, Watched – and the integration of social music services such as Spotify, Rdio, MOG, SoundCloud, and Rhapsody. The rumors gained credibility with the introduction of the Ticker, a sidebar that displays real-time updates of your friends’ activities, for example: “Bill McDermott is reading SAP.info” or “Jim Hagemann Snabe commented on your photo”.
Google fights back
Not to be outdone, on the day before f8, in a very strategic maneuver, Google released the beta version of Google+ and nine enhancements and opened the social network up to everyone. Talk about a one-two (three) punch.
Many of the new features revolve around the previously mentioned Hangouts function. For example, as of September 21, Google+ users are able to use the video and group chat functions on a smartphone, and some users are even be able to make public video broadcasts with the On Air feature.
Some of the other features are especially interesting for professionals on Google+, namely: screensharing, Sketchpad, Google Docs, named Hangouts, and an API for Hangouts. The biggest plus for users, however, is the new search function on Google+, which returns relevant results from content posted within the site as well as from the web.
The laws of sharing
Cut back to Facebook. Now that f8 has come and gone, we have had a chance to examine the various changes and features that were announced at the conference, most of which revolve around the idea of frictionless sharing. According to Facebook, this is the future of sharing. Before we go into the details of how it works, however, let’s look at the rationale behind it.
If you could point to one thing that inspired frictionless sharing, it would have to be Zuckerberg’s Law. That is, the amount of information that people share on Facebook – links to articles, songs, photos, videos, et cetera – doubles every year. This makes sense, even if the logic is rather circular, because every year or so Facebook enables us to share so much more than we previously could.
To wit: photos and tagging first came to Facebook in 2005, status updates arrived in 2006 as did the News Feed, the Like button appeared on Facebook in 2009, and the button became available for use on other websites in 2010.
In order to continue this sort of exponential growth, however, Facebook needed to make sharing even easier, and in that light, clicking the Like button started to seem too difficult. Thus, frictionless sharing was born.
The idea here is that Facebook automatically does the sharing for you. Every article you read in The Washington Post or The Guardian, every song you listen to on Spotify, and every video you watch via Hulu or Netflix is broadcast by Facebook for your friends to see. Of course, you have to authorize this frictionless sharing for each website first, and naturally there is an option to pause this feature and keep certain actions private.
The Ticker and Top Stories
Now that the amount of information we’re sharing is on the rise, there is also need for a new way to consume it. That’s where the Ticker comes in. In the upper right-hand corner of your Facebook profile, you will see the real-time updates of your friends’ activities: songs they are listening to, photos they like, articles they’re reading, et cetera.
Since the Ticker contains all the minutiae of people’s online habits, the News Feed has become the destination for premium content. Facebook is now using more advanced algorithms to select the Top Stories for your News Feed. These may not be the most current news items, but they are supposedly the most interesting and relevant for you.
This change will have an important impact on the way businesses use Facebook. Until now, companies have largely focused on persuading employees, customers, and Facebook users to Like them. In the future, however, businesses will have to do a lot more than accumulate Likes to stand out amidst the constant stream of updates on Ticker or to make it as a Top Story on someone’s News Feed.
Story of your life
Last but not least, we come to Timeline, Facebook’s re-conception of the user profile. The sleek, customizable page with its large feature photo looks more like a personal blog than a standard Facebook profile. Thanks to OpenGraph API functions and the developers that use them, you can further personalize your page with widgets that will deliver updates based on your activities in various apps.
The rest of the Timeline is made up of two columns containing – in chronological order – all the photos, status updates, Likes, comments, friendship requests, relationship changes, and other activities that you have ever posted in your history on Facebook. The Timeline is not yet finalized, so if you manage to get your hands on a developer’s version, you should expect some bugs.