And can they survive competing with Facebook?
I'm sitting in Marfa, Texas right now, waiting to see if a gigantic out-of-control wildfire will turn the surrounding town into cinders. While the desert burns around me, the Internet is alight with a different sort of blaze. Rumors have popped up of a Google-sympathetic mole inside of Twitter. While there's no hard evidence of the mole's existence, the speculation grows more wild with every passing hour. And industrial espionage isn't the only thing that has Google in the news right now.
Bloggers can't argue enough over that social media "bonus" memo new-CEO Larry Page supposedly sent out. The current hive-mind consensus seems to be that it was a bad, hastily conceived idea that will do more to make Google look desperate than to help them 'beat' Facebook. Some writers (like the wonderful Mike Elgan) even suggested that Google's best solution to the "social" gap is to create a social media site of their own.
There's an elegance to this theory. Google already has all the components of a successful social media site like Facebook. Gmail is their message system, Gchat is the IM client, Buzz is your "Wall", etc. But Google services are fundamentally decentralized, at a user level. Using Gmail for your email account doesn't mean using Picasa for images. Users are free to pick and choose Google apps and services as they please, without ever being confronted with one monolithic, imposing package.
Some would call that a strength. The Google 'experience' is infinitely customizable. With Facebook you're either in whole-hog or not at all. You log in and that site is your "Splinternet" for the time you use it. Google's services work around your browsing experience.
This is good for those of us who like a low-pressure 'sales pitch' and don't like the idea of mushing our whole online experience into a single blue window. But Google isn't satisfied with offering useful, free products and a fantastic search engine. They want to drink Facebook's milkshake- and that means creating their own little walled off Internet garden. A place where all traffic feeds back into Google's loop.
Which- to me- seems utterly antithetical to the whole core of what Google is. Facebook works because it has always been a closed system. They never set out with the goal of aggregating all the world's data together. They didn't promise not to be "evil" (whatever that means) and they weren't supped from their earliest days on a free-range Internet. Facebook benefits from being 'closed' and centralized because that is what they -are-.
In imitating Facebook, Google risks losing their footing entirely and plunging into an awkward limbo as they cede their core strengths for faltering grasps at a market they were never meant to own. Maybe it's too early for such a doom-and-gloom prediction. But hey, I'm surrounded by wildfire and panicking people. It's hard to avoid hyperbole.