Rob Fishman, writing for BuzzFeed on Google’s Lost Social Network, describes the situation when Google killed the sharing features of Google Reader, its RSS aggregator. Convinced that it needed to compete with Facebook in the social networking realm, Google envisioned these features would exist in Google Plus, the maligned social networking platform it launched in 2011 at the expense of an already vibrant, if not super-sized social, community.
There is a business lesson to be learned here. That Google shot themselves in the foot by integrating rather than innovating an existing social network. Google could have refined its own network rather than reproduced the social network. But there’s a cultural lesson, too, surrounding the nature of oligopolies in the digital realm.
The problem with oligopolies — markets dominated by a handful of outsized players — is not only that they quash the little guys, but that they tend to fixate on one another. In its most benign form, that makes for a lot of copycatting; Facebook releases “cover photos,” so Twitter introduces “header photos.” The dark side is a rancorous string of patent wars among smartphone makers and social networking giants, squabbling like litigious heirs to a disputed fortune.
The mentality that one big player has to eclipse another big player might make sense in traditional businesses, but the bottom-up nature of digital networks negates this rule when it comes to governing the Internet. While Google successfully killed off the Reader community by taking away its networking tools, it could not force them to migrate to Google Plus. By contrast, consider how quickly landline telephone users have been migrated to wireless cellular networks for their voice telephony needs.
At the moment, I don’t have a definitive answer for whether the Internet and the social networks it enables can be controlled as easily as they might be with other monopolies and oligopolies. But while it’s discouraging to see the big players wipe them out, it’s encouraging to see that they can’t be completely controlled, either.