Spinning Gears :: Why are Facebook Users So Threatened by Google+?

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(this brand new image for Spinning Gears columns is courtesy of Narilka, who graciously gave permission to use it!)

Now that Google+ is open to the public (and you can add me to your circles here by the way,) some of the first people who have joined are the people eager for an alternative to Facebook. Obviously, the first few people on the network were the geeks and techies who wanted first access to assess it for features and usability so they would write about it, tell the world, and use it for themselves. I was more than happily one of those people – after all, it’s my duty to tell others about it, right?

Well, after that, the next few people to sign on were people who were desperately looking for an alternative to Facebook either because they have issues with Facebook and it’s privacy policies, dislike the way Facebook handles data, have had it up to here with Facebook’s design changes, or they dislike Facebook for some other reason. Naturally those people tend to be vocal about their dissent and departure. What’s been unexpected though in the past few weeks and months has been exactly how vocal Facebook users on the other hand have been defending their platform against anyone perceived as a threat. While Twitter users don’t seem to have much problem talking about Facebook or Google+, and Google+ users tend to look at Facebook with a little disdain but prefer to speak instead of the merits of Google+ as opposed to denigrating Facebook, Facebook users actively dislike any mention of Google+, and will go out of their way to be vocal about it, even if it’s mentioned in passing. What I don’t understand is why.

Part of writing for a site like Lifehacker is that I have the opportunity to see and cover a lot of these sites and services first-hand, before a lot of other people sign on. While much of the other media are obsessing over traffic numbers and who’s using Google+ this week versus who’s using Facebook this week, I have the privilege of writing for an outlet that discusses the best tools to manage and use those tools–without the ridiculous need to obsess over whose traffic numbers are up this week or how some new feature has impacted overall utilization. So whenever I’ve written about a new utility or tool that helps users make the most of Google+, and then posted that article to our Facebook page, I’ve seen the assault begin. Facebook users are incredibly hateful and spiteful of Google+.

I can understand rallying to your favorite platform’s defense when you feel it’s under attack by an outsider that you dislike, but this rises to a different level that I think we haven’t seen in a long time. To point, when I wrote Facebook Is Tracking Your Every Move on the Web; Here’s How to Stop It for Lifehacker, and subsequently posted the article to our Facebook page, the first series of comments were a bombardment of how some people “didn’t care about privacy” and instead chose to deflect the issue onto other companies with comments like “Yeah well Google does the same thing” (not true) and “I don’t mind targeted ads” (irrelevant to the topic of the article.)

It’s clear that – even without reading the piece to form a critical response to it – many people immediately saw their favorite or preferred social network under some kind of assault, and rallied to its defense. These same people take the same stance whenever a browser extension for Google+ is mentioned, or a utility that allows them to cross-post between Facebook and Google+. With no regard for the tool or the story, their commentary immediately shifts to the defensive, implying anyone would be a fool to use anything but Facebook, and heralding the demise of any opposition, like Google+. I noticed a similar response from people when Diaspora made its first appearance, but on a smaller scale. It’s likely that Google gets such a visceral response because it’s a larger company with name recognition and a number of products that already have their fingers in people’s lives.

Much of this may have to do with the notion that individuals often unfortunately conflate their preference in brand and brand choices with their own self-image and self-identity, a horrible side-effect of living in a consumer age. Ars Technica does a great job of reporting the study findings and what it means for the majority of us, who do have brand preferences. Personally, I wish everyone would take a step back and consider their brand preferences and consciously separate them from their personal identities (after all, it would mean the end of all iPhone versus Android flame wars on the internet,) but I doubt most people will ever do such a thing.

Unfortunately I don’t think the web in general – or most of its most vocal denizens at sites like Facebook – are mature enough to address issues on their real merits: as with any large commons, small groups are capable of intelligent, self-moderated discussions, while large groups eventually devolve into massive, unwieldy shouting matches where only the loudest and most arrogant voices are heard, and the softer, more temperate individuals choose to keep their mouths closed because they know they’ll either not be heard or they’ll be shouted down. Unfortunately, I think this, in and of itself, is one of Facebook’s core weaknesses – it’s gotten too big to be actually meaningful in any real way aside from the small communities that people assemble with their friends, and the platform’s approach to how people build those communities is so focused on adding more people and sharing more information that those conversations are devalued. I also think that’s what draws people so much to Google+, a service which puts prime consideration on those communities and the discussions they have with one another.

Still, Facebook’s platform is good – it wouldn’t have attracted over 800 million users otherwise. At the same time though, that doesn’t explain the aggressiveness of its users. The only thing I can think of is that Facebook – like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and virtually every other consumer technology brand – has grown to a name or product that people that people identify with so strongly that they’re willing to prize those brands over other human brings, and attack other people over those brands.

Most people would say that competition in a marketplace is generally a good thing, especially when they’re on the outside of a brand rivalry. Inside one of those rivalries, however, the rules seem to change drastically, and it’s worrysome.

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