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If you can't check in, is it really Foursquare?

Mike Elgan | July 29, 2014
In their quest to copy competitors, social sites and apps increasingly drop features that are part of the popularity and identity of their products, says columnist Mike Elgan.

Over time, Twitter is evolving from something that people loved to something that is just like other services and has has few differentiating features.

Good news from Google?

Maybe Google will get it right.

When Google+ launched more than three years ago, it immediately identified itself as the "you're in control" social network. At the time, Facebook had serious limitations on the length of posts, whereas Google posts could be novel-length. You couldn't edit Facebook posts, or make them available via their own URL, but you could edit easily on Google+. You could put text in bold or italic and do other simple formatting. Facebook has copied many of Google+'s best features, but the initial differentiating vibe of Google+ was that of user control and freedom.

Over time, Google became more controlling. The first big removal of freedom was the real names policy, where Google claimed that it would require people to use their actual, legal names in profiles instead of made-up names.

Over time, algorithms emerged to control what you might see in your circle streams. While a new redesign enabled you to choose from between one and multiple columns of stream content, and individual circle streams could be set to "More," "Standard" and "Fewer" as a way for you to assert vague control over the number of posts you see and thus filter out some of the noise, it didn't offer the maximum user-control option of "All." For example, I have a circle of just my wife and two sons. Why wouldn't I want to see "All" of their posts?

Google also uses algorithms to flag what are supposed to be objectionable (spammy or irrelevant) comments. In recent months, this algorithmic filtering of comments has gotten both more aggressive and less accurate.

But there are signs that Google may be intending to return Google+ to its roots as the "you're in control" social network. The first is that the company recently canceled its real names policy: "There are no more restrictions on what name you can use," it announced.

Also, in a recent post about the algorithmic control of comment flagging, I asked a Google+ team member whether there was any way to turn it off, and he replied that it's something they're talking about internally at Google. I don't know if they're discussing the addition of an "All" option to allow users to see all of the posts in a stream, with no noise-filtering.

Overall, it seems to me that Google may be getting back to its roots as the social network where users are in control. If it's not, it should be.

I believe that instead of abandoning passionate users and trying to copy competitors, social sites and apps need to look deep within themselves and understand what made their passionate users so passionate in the first place. Then do more of that. Not less.


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