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Google+, Twitter, and Why Barriers to Conversation Can Be A Good Thing

Posted on 18 July 2011

Thesis: Google+ comments are primarily noise, Twitter’s lack of “comments” are a built in filter.

I feel like I’ve written about internet things too much lately, and I actually had something else queued up, but this is frankly more interesting to me right now. It’s also timely.

It’s about Google+. Feel free to leave if you’re not interested.

I’m finding Google+ fascinating because it’s the first time I’ve been in at the ground-floor of a new social network. MySpace I came to late and didn’t stick with long, Facebook I joined after some friends were on there, Twitter was before Oprah but after all the early adopters, and Tumblr I only really “got” sometime last year. Google+, in contrast, is only a few weeks old, and it’s fascinating to watch it develop under early users who are both testing it out and re-evaluating existing services. At the core of all this we’re talking design, communication, relationships and human pyschology. Just take a look at some of my bookmarks on the subject if you want to read some very smart people with some very interesting observations about these subjects .

The part I want to talk about here is the emerging “Is Google+ going to kill Twitter?” question, which has come to a head in a post by tech-famous guy Robert Scoble, who wrote about how ever since Google+ came along, Twitter is boring.

He has a number of reasons, including:

On Google+ I can see if what you wrote excited or pissed people off. Why? There are comments right underneath it. As a writer this feedback makes Google+ extremely interesting. Why? Because I can change my behavior if I’m pissing people off, and my ego gets fed when I see 3,000 people commented and said “great post.” I am seeing a LOT of engagement on Google+ where on Twitter I can’t see that.

And it’s true. He gets lots of comments on everything G+ item he posts.

But here’s the thing: most of the comments Robert Scoble gets are junk.

Maybe junk is too harsh a word, but certainly noise. And what I mean by noise is information that is straight up not relevant to anything. Let’s look at Scoble’s Google+ thread wherein he declares how boring Twitter has become.

As of my writing this, there are 386 comments. The one that appears in my stream is from a guy highjacking the thread with a link to his own blog that is only tangentially related to the topic and ends with a “Follow me on Google+” link. If I open the thread, the first comment is “same here”, followed by a guy straight-up advertising some Facebook game he’s made. No relevance to the conversation at all. There are a few decent comments following, but many are along the lines of “I agree.” In other words, things that could have been expressed using a “like,” “+1,” or whatever positive-sentiment button your social network of choice has implemented. Throw in a “dislike” button and you’ve eliminated the need for at least 50% of the comments. And that’s a problem. When so many of the comments are just noise, it cancels out the good ones. The ones that actually add to the quality of the post rather than just clutter it up.

That’s where Twitter excels. If I want to comment on someone else’s Tweet, I need to make the decision to clutter up my own stream with a reply. Not yours. Mine. That means I’m going to consider it a lot more before adding my voice to the sea of “me too’s”! Some (like Scoble) see this as a bad thing because it gets in the way of “instant feedback.” I see it as a positive because it gets in the way of mindless feedback.

I like blog comments. Fred Wilson’s AVC blog consistently gets upwards of one hundred comments, almost all of them worthwhile (he also uses what I think is the best conversation tool out there, Disqus). I have comments enabled on my own blog because I want to give people the opportunity to respond to my writing if they choose to do so. But I don’t crave them. I’d rather get a few quality responses than a hundred junk ones. And I definitely don’t need people highjacking my threads to promo their new Facebook page.

Some people take this a step further. John Gruber  and Marco Arment have written about why they don’t include comments in their blogs. And, (I think not coincidentally), they are both active Twitter users. When Twitter started it was a “microblogging service.” In other words, a blog with 140 characters. And Twitter blogs don’t have comments enabled.

Here’s what I mean. If you go to my Google+ profile, you see my stream. And my stream is made up of stuff that I’ve posted, and comments that myself and others have made on things I’ve posted. If I post on someone else’s page, that shows up in THEIR stream. Not mine. So if I start spamming your posts with links to my new Facebook page, that’s a problem for you, not me, because it makes your page look messy without affecting my page at all. I can post a link on hundreds of people’s walls and it doesn’t affect my profile at all. If Google+ were a blog, it’d be one that’s very open to trolls (at the moment).

On Twitter, it’s different. I can’t “comment” on your items. If I want to provide feedback, I have to muddy up MY stream with @ replies. In other words, I have to make my own microblog post, not just comment on yours. So if I want to start promoing my Facebook page by hijacking other people’s comments threads, I need to post the same thing ON MY STREAM over and over and over again. And that’s going to lose me followers. Even if I’m not spamming, I don’t want to bore my own followers with dozens of “right ons!” “yeah!” “me too!” Tweets. If I’m going to say something, I want it to sound at least halfway considered because otherwise, I’m just making noise. And that bores my audience, however small it may be.

Twitter has a perfectly fine set of tools for feedback. If someone likes your Tweet, they can favourite it. If they want to share it they can retweet it, and if they’d like to add to the conversation they can have an @ reply. And in some ways retweets and @ replies are BETTER feedback than comments on Google+ or elsewhere because it means the person likes or at least respects what you have to say enough that they’re willing to quote it to others, not just the echo chamber.

Google+ is emerging as an interesting platform, even if I haven’t quite figured out where it fits into the overall ecosystem. But already I can tell that one of its biggest challenges is filtering the amount of noise it makes. That is not a problem Twitter’s had, and a big part of that is how simple it is: if you consistently enjoy what people have to say in under 140 characters follow them and you’ll see what else they have to say, if you don’t like it unfollow and you’ll not see them again UNLESS someone else you like decides to retweet a quality post. No circles, no comments, and an easy “block” option for mindless spam. It’s a strength, and one they should continue to play into.

Articles linked to in this post:

Google+ has made Twitter boring, here’s what Twitter should do about that by Robert Scoble (G+ thread)

I’ll Tell You What’s Fair by John Gruber

Comments by Marco Arment

See also:

Your Right to Comment Ends at My Front Door by Derek Powazek

Asking Twitter to Commit Suicide With A Google+ Dagger by MG Siegler

Filed under: ideas, social media

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