Social Bowl 2010: Facebook versus Google Buzz

By Ændrew Rininsland

Good afternoon, sports fans! Today we watch as longstanding champion Facebook faces off against relative newcomer Google for social networking supremacy, each competing for a greater share of both your time and energy. Both have just come out of intensive training and have debuted their latest for the social media hungry Internet population– Facebook with their recent redesign and Google with their new Buzz entrant.

Both Facebook and Google have been working with social media for a while. While Facebook has been the industry leader for the last several years, Google has been experimenting with a wide variety of social networking technology since 2004 (albeit with varying results). Notably, Google debuted Orkut with mixed results; everyone seemed to already be on Facebook and Orkut didn’t offer anything worthwhile in exchange for the effort required to create an account. Google’s since experimented with a “social search” function to better integrate social media content with its flagship search engine site, bought YouTube to become the Internet’s premiere video sharing service and implemented a network-wide account system to better position itself alongside competitors like Yahoo!. Google unveiled its new Buzz feature earlier this week, which combines elements of Facebook and Twitter to be a very fast content sharing platform built directly into Gmail. Buzz can be set up to auto-share content from a wide variety of websites, ranging from Google standbys Picasa and YouTube to third-party sites such as Flickr and Twitter. Connectivity with Google Reader provides an incredibly efficient way to read and now share news on a daily basis.

Facebook, meanwhile, has been busy redesigning their interface and retooling their sharing functionality to be more straightforward. Recent improvements to the service now allow people to create Pages for things or businesses (as opposed to just Groups, which are much looser organizationally) and, like Buzz, cross-post between a larger number of services. Further, the once-annoying third-party applications have had their volume turned way down and are far less of a nuisance than they once were. The other major way Facebook has semi-recently evolved is the consolidation of all its content within the user-stream. At one point acting almost as individual components with dissimilar posting interfaces, the redesigned News Feed gives users a simplified one-stop location to post images, status updates, videos and events. As with Google Buzz, the privacy level of posts can be easily set at time of posting. The interface has also been greatly simplified by locating everything in the left sidebar. Instead of cramming everything into an unmanageable list attached to the chat bar, the vast majority of site functionality has been replaced with collapsing lists, much like in a file browser such as Windows Explorer. Despite the usual whining by part of its user base whenever it makes a change, these recent changes have once again solidified Facebook’s control of the high ground in the battle for social networking supremacy.

There are some clear differences between Facebook and Buzz, most notably in how they approach privacy– Facebook has very advanced privacy controls while Buzz and Twitter are designed for large-scale dissemination of content across a variety of media. Think of the difference between a telephone conversation and doing an interview on the radio. While both services can be configured to achieve either goal, the initial difference has a large impact on how people approach the medium– for instance, I’ve actually met and know far more people on Facebook than I do my Twitter followers, largely because Facebook requires two actions to allow communication (Request and Approve) while Buzz and Twitter only need one– Follow.

The reality is that both closed systems like Facebook and open systems like Twitter/Buzz will fill unique niches– Facebook as a more private way to share memories between friends, Buzz and Twitter as a way to easily and quickly communicate with a larger Internet community. Usage roles are still very malleable for this technology. For example, look at the variety of ways Twitter is used: along with Facebook-like status updates, people use Twitter as a way to advertise new posts on websites, as a way to stay current with local gossip and news and as a way to connect people with similar hobbies and causes– to name just a few. Given that most of the major Web 2.0 players are working concurrently on Single Sign-On technology (Including Facebook, Twitter and Google) that will let users effortlessly login between sites, interactivity between social media services will only increase, meaning being a member of any given site is less important than how you use it. The old adage holds true– how you play the game is indeed far more important than whoever wins or loses.

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