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Facebook appears to be untouchable in the realm of Social Networks, having become the first page loaded and the last page closed on many people’s browsers and it’s the single most commonly installed application on every major mobile OS.  For many people Facebook has become their only window to the Internet. At 845 million active users worldwide, including nearly 1/2 of the entire US population, Facebook truly is a phenomenon.

Enter Google+, the 4th effort Google has made into the social space.  Unveiled on June 28th, 2011 to a swarm of people trying to get into the invite-only “field test” and nearly crashing the service in just a short few hours (I was one of the few who got a working invite and I’ll confirm it was barely functional for several days due to crowding).  The excitement quickly waned, but the service has been quietly gaining an estimated 625,000 new users daily with a massive leap in users coming in December.  Despite a common perception that few people are using Google+ the estimates suggest that it will reach 400 million users by the end of 2012, nearly half of Facebook’s current total.

Facebook has not let Google+ go unnoticed, quickly adapting to mimic many features for which Google+ was initially praised.  Within a week of the unveiling Facebook had unofficially released a tool for treating their existing Lists feature as a version of Circles, later introducing automatic lists based on workplaces, schools or other significant commonalities. Facebook also signed a deal with Skype to offer video calling services in an attempt to rival Google+ Hangouts. They’ve even added a feature allowing people to Subscribe to other users, making it easy to see public updates from people without having to become friends.

Facebook has also taken to another strategy as well, not just to slow Google+ but to cement their position as the dominant social network of the internet.  When Google+ first arrived, the most common complaint wasn’t that it was slow or clumsy to work with, there wasn’t much to do, or even that there just weren’t enough users…The biggest complaint was about fatigue from setting up another social network; having to find and organize friends, creating albums, uploading pictures, customizing security settings and learning how everything works.  This complaint lead to an ‘A-Ha!’ moment for Facebook, by giving users the perception that too much work is involved in using another service they will simply stay where they are at.

How is Facebook going to add a cost to joining other social networks?  I first realized their goal when I saw a friend asking about the new Timeline feature, mostly complaining that it wanted users to add even more information and photos from their past to fill out the history.  People often assume Facebook wants this information to sell to advertisers, but the reality is that most advertisers don’t want that information, it’s basically useless to them.  Facebook simply wants you to make an investment by storing as much data as possible on their servers.  They aren’t looking to sell or abuse your data (well, not yet) or expose it to the world (like they’ve done a few times in the past), they just want to make it increasingly complicated to migrate your history to a competitor down the line.

Just yesterday Facebook announced plans to purchase Instagram, a social network directed at sharing photos.  At first glance this seems trivial, even a bit confusing.  Instagram doesn’t do anything substantial that’s not already offered by Facebook or can’t be added very quickly, it can’t be a patent or talent acquisition (not at the $1 billion price tag) and there’s already features in Instagram to cross-post your photos to Facebook.  It becomes increasingly clear that Facebook’s primary interest is absorbing Instagram’s existing database of users and pictures.  As a benefit, Facebook is surely looking to also integrate the wide discoverability offered by Instagram’s design, encouraging people to explore publicly shared photos.  I’m not predicting the dismantling of Instagram, rather I expect it will soon meld into the Facebook ecosystem as a separate application connected through your Facebook credentials.  All of this serves to deepen the integration Facebook has with user data.

Is this new tactic malicious or creepy, I don’t think so.  Facebook is simply playing into peoples’ laziness by asking for a little more information at a time until it’s unmanageable and impossible to relocate.  It’s really just smart business.  It’s also very telling; expect Facebook to become more aggressive, possibly even taking some bigger risks soon.

Both networks are stepping up their game.  Google+ is now integrated (non-invasively) into Android 4.0 and with several of the sister services (most notably Google Search itself) while Facebook has partnered with Microsoft to offer social search results and huge marketing opportunities.  Back in the late stages of 2011 it looked like Facebook had nothing to fear but their actions over the last 3 months hint that they are preparing for a fight.  It might be a crazy thought, but I think somebody could make a movie out of this. ;)

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