Will people leave Facebook for Buzz? Fat chance

The issue with Google's new social toy is that 400 million people already use Facebook and have been offered no viable incentive to switch.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

Let's say you'd constituted a drinking game for the aftermath of Tuesday's unveiling of Google Buzz, the odd new mishmash of status messages, geolocation, and social-media aggregation: Take a drink every time some pundit says Google is trying to "kill" Facebook, Twitter, or any number of the "geo" start-ups out there.

You'd have been totally blitzed.

The cries of "It's a Facebook killer!" and "It's going to kill Twitter!" are tedious, but completely understandable considering that this is one of the first big pushes from Google, which has never been able to get a good grip on social networking, to make inroads in the space. And Buzz is indeed a product that's reactionary as opposed to trailblazing. It's Google's biggest acknowledgment of the fact that people dig these short real-time messages and social-media sharing. It aims to take the reasons why people use Facebook, why people use Twitter, and why early adopters have started using "geo" services, and wrap them all up into a product intimately connected to its existing Gmail client.

But things are very different from the days just a few years ago when it seemed like any social-media site was in constant danger of being one-upped by another. The space has matured to a point where the rise of a new player means tens of millions of people voluntarily ditching the last one. Not easy. Facebook has surpassed 400 million active members around the world, and additionally announced Wednesday that it has 100 million of those members using its mobile Web site. That's a significantly deeper influence than Friendster or MySpace ever can claim to have had, and the rise of Twitter does not seem to have curbed its growth.

Facebook is a household name, and it takes a lot for a tech brand to reach that point. Google did it with search and iTunes has done it with music sales--which is why it takes massive companies like Microsoft and Amazon, respectively, to make a dent in that market share, and they've still had an uphill battle (to say the least).

So here's the positive news for Google: It's created a great way for people to actually start using Buzz, assuming they're Gmail users in the first place: The "Buzz" link is right below the "Inbox" link in Gmail, and when there are new messages on Buzz, it shows up just as though they were new e-mail messages. It's like we're already conditioned to check up on it.

But here's the thing. There's a whole lot else that people do on Facebook besides comment on one another's status messages--the biggest of which is the company's groundbreaking third-party app platform. The biggest social game on Facebook, Zynga's FarmVille, attracts 75 million people per month. That's nearly a fifth of the social network playing a single game. Then there are the people who engage in other sorts of "games" on Facebook: the social capital that members feel they earn by getting tagged in a lot of photos and having a ton of wall posts from friends should not be sniffed at either, for example.

It's a different story for Twitter, a far smaller company with an active user base that arguably can't be considered fully mainstream. Twitter users with legitimate "social capital" are generally restricted to celebrities, media figures, and those who got on the bandwagon early, meaning that there are millions of casual and passive Twitter users whose allegiance to the service may not be anywhere as strong as their allegiance to Facebook. Buzz, even if it doesn't "kill" Twitter, has a chance to suck up some market share that Twitter's still striving to get.

Remember why Twitter really started to break into the mainstream in the first place? It had a lot less to do with social-networking than you'd think. Celeb-culture freaks wanted to see what funny links Ashton Kutcher was posting, or they'd heard it was the fastest way to get breaking news from across the world. Twitter's surprisingly high attrition rates, in turn, indicate that some of these passive users only experimented with it, and others might be reading the latest from Ellen DeGeneres and Perez Hilton without actually posting tweets themselves.

This is where I can see Google Buzz getting reach:in Twitter-like mass short-form communication, but for the audiences that haven't found the need or desire to dive into the jargon-filled, truncated culture of Twitter. If you use Twitter to read John Mayer's irreverent messages and get JetBlue deals, but don't actually update it yourself, Google Buzz might be a completely different product. For better or for worse, it's forced its way into your Gmail.

But it's a lot harder to force a ubiquitous social network out of people's lives. Importing a contact list is a pain in the butt regardless, and you can bet that Facebook won't make it any easier.

Nor has Google Buzz yet proven that it can offer something better than Facebook. The only thing it does that Facebook doesn't do is enable geotagged status messages; not only will those likely be coming to Facebook eventually, but geolocation is a feature that is far from mainstream acceptance and will likely go unnoticed by the average user. Early uncertainty about the exact privacy specifics of Google Buzz may quash any advantage it may have had in the public eye about being "safer" than Facebook.

There are reasons why people ditch Web services: the experience is bad, they're technologically stagnant, uptake wasn't enough to bring users back, or there are real financial incentives to go elsewhere. AOL's once-unstoppable dial-up service languished because its prices were undercut by faster cable and DSL providers, and its shiny software features were matched by cheaper, slicker technologies on the Web. Friendster's founder has blamed technical difficulties for the social-networking pioneer's plunge in U.S. popularity. MySpace's culture of "meet new people" and predominance of flashy, music-blaring profile pages was a turn-off for many adults.

Right now, Facebook is neither suffering from obsolescent technology nor facing an upstart alternative with some kind of financial perk. And Google Buzz, at least at launch, doesn't offer enough that's new.

Plus, there is absolutely no way to raise a barnyard of virtual pigs. That apparently means something to a lot of people.