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Like it or not, Facebook dominates

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When I was a child, one brand of cigarettes had advertisements featuring smokers with black eyes.

"Us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch!" was the brand's defiantly un-grammatical slogan.

Today, computer users would rather complain about Facebook than switch to some other social networking service.

That was the message last week, as Google+, Google's attempt to compete with Facebook, began offering open enrollment. Previously, you had to be invited, either by putting your name on a waiting list or by getting an invitation from another Google+ member.

This week, Google+ added CityVille, a game from popular social gaming company Zynga. It was Zynga's games -- such as Mafia Wars and FarmVille -- which helped coax users onto Facebook a few years ago, and Google no doubt hopes they will have the same impact on its service.

But Google+ has been totally overshadowed by complaints over changes by Facebook to its user interface, including a sidebar ticker and changes to the way in which stories are displayed on the front page.

Facebook members complained loud and long about the changes, but -- as best I can tell -- few were interested in trying out another service. Apparently, Facebook users don't think it's worth the time and effort of building their social networks all over again from scratch, especially with no guarantee that their friends will move to Google along with them.

Google+ hasn't been a complete failure -- there are a lot of "early adopters" using the service, some of whom seem to like the fact that they have it to themselves. I've seen reports that last week's open enrollment gave Google+ a boost as well. Others (like me) have simply set up automatic services to cross-post the same information to Facebook and Google+, covering all our bases but probably annoying people who follow us in both places.

Google is certainly in a position to be patient. It could be that some new application or feature will come along that will tip the scales in Google+'s favor. MySpace once looked like the dominant social networking site, until it was surpassed by Facebook.

Google+ obviously has Facebook's attention. Some of the changes Facebook has made to its privacy settings -- allowing users to better control who sees what posts -- are an obvious reaction to Google+'s easy-to-use system of "circles," which let you designate groups of other users ("friends," "acquaintances," "book club," "in-laws" and what have you) and send any given update or link only to the circles with which you want to share it.

Facebook has also added a "subscribe" feature which lets public figures make their status updates available one-way. A Facebook user can now subscribe to another user's public status updates without the two having to become friends. Google+ already had that capability.

But right now, Facebook is entrenched, so much so that users who claim to hate, hate, hate the new interface are still using it.

Diaspora, which prior to Google+ was considered the best hope for a Facebook alternative, continues to put out status updates and is still in an invitation-only alpha test. Diaspora will differ from Facebook and Google+ in that it will be a protocol rather than a centrally-run service. Anyone will be able to set up a Diaspora server, hosting and controlling their own photos and content, rather than turning them over to Facebook or Google. That has advantages for privacy and security. But Diaspora won't have the marketing clout of a Facebook or Google, and may have a hard time getting its message out.

Predictably, last week's changes to Facebook prompted the return of a years-old pass-along hoax claiming that Facebook is about to start charging for its service. As Steve Mallard of Tennessee Technology Center at Shelbyville pointed out, Facebook made more than $3 billion -- that's billion, with a "B" -- in advertising revenue last year, and isn't about to jeopardize that by instituting user fees that would drive away a significant portion of the user base to whom those ads are targeted. Facebook may be entrenched as a free service, but if it were to start charging people for basic access, it really would drive users to Google+ or Diaspora. Please, people, check things out at snopes.com before reposting them.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.

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I hate, hate, hate the new Facebook but I must be getting old, I can't figure out Google+. I'm signed up for it but so far, it seems harder to use and understand than the new FB format.

-- Posted by CD on Thu, Oct 6, 2011, at 9:48 AM

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.