Can babies teach us anything about Google Plus?

In the week since Google+ launched, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether it will provide Facebook some serious competition. General consensus seems to be a measured “yes”: after plenty of social missteps in the past, Google got a lot of things right this time and has built a powerful and useable platform. We’ve written about it plenty, from general features to specific ones like Hangouts. GigaOM’s readers, too, think that it could be a contender — as our research note shows.

I’ve been using Plus, wondering about these questions and following those conversations like the rest of you. But then a few days ago something happened that gave me a good opportunity to find out how it really compared to the rest when it mattered, so I thought I’d share it with you.

Recently, my girlfriend and I got some exciting news — we’re expecting a baby. It’s a big deal to us, of course, and something we wanted to share (via an ultrasound scan picture) with people we know. In fact, this is precisely the sort of thing that good social networks are meant to be for: distributing a piece of news that is relevant to the people I know, but not really anyone else.

So I decided to put a little announcement up on three networks that matter to me, Facebook, Google+ and Flickr, and compare the results. It’s worth noting that I didn’t share it on Twitter, because although I also use it a lot, I wanted to retain some control over the privacy and didn’t feel like sharing the news with 10,000 people at once.

Before we get into what happened, let’s start by saying that, obviously, there are caveats here. This experiment was in no way scientific; the various networks do different things and are populated by different people, and I do not use them all in exactly the same way. So there’s no point reading too much into the numbers. Also, since Google+ is the new shiny thing, there is likely to be a higher level of activity as people explore the service (although you could argue that this is balanced out by the fact that far fewer people in my closest circles of friends are on it right now).

In any case, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the responses I got when I put up our ultrasound scan:

On Facebook, I shared the picture with all of my 563 friends — a mixture of family, close friends, old friends and colleagues. In 24 hours, it got a total of 25 likes and 25 comments. That’s one interaction for every 11 people, roughly.

On Google+, I shared the picture with a circle of 78 friends — people I know well. My family aren’t there yet, but I kept the circle pretty tight. In 24 hours, it received eight +1s and 9 comments. That comes out at one interaction for every 4.5 people who could potentially see the photo.

On Flickr, I shared the picture with 88 people listed as being “friends and family”. The total interaction after a day had one favorite and two comments. That’s one interaction for every 29 people.

Without trying to read too much into this, I think it suggests that Google+ is a fairly robust platform already. In fact, the level of interaction per user was higher on Google+ than it was elsewhere. On Facebook, the numbers were lower but they were also more what I’d expected, because they follow in line with the so-called 1% rule — that’s the idea that only 1% of users actually create content in a virtual community, another 10% contribute around that object and the rest lurk. Those 50 interactions on Facebook represents, pretty much, that 10%.

I don’t know whether those numbers will normalize as Google+ becomes more widely available or not, but it’s interesting to note all the same.

However, the most intriguing stats to me were actually the Flickr ones, because I have a fairly active group of friends and contacts there (indeed, I have several friends who have worked at Flickr over the years). It’s one of the sites I check every day, and I really like to keep up with what people are doing through their photographs. So are the low response numbers surprising? A little. But I realized that while the numbers suggest that interaction is very low, there’s another issue that also plays a big part. The photo, it turned out, only got 20 views across my 88 friends. That means that the problem isn’t necessarily that there’s no interaction (3 events from 20 views is actually pretty good in terms of the % 1rule) but that it’s simply not the place my friends go for casual photo sharing.

To test this theory, I tried another experiment the next day, when I used it to share a news-related photo and then pointed to it on Twitter. In a few hours it had more than 2,000 views, nine faves and two or three comments, all from people who were clearly following me in some sense and had Flickr accounts. Many of them were the same people I’d shown the ultrasound photo the day before, but it seemed like they were like a bedroom community — a world of photo commuters who existed in Flickr but were not particularly engaged with what went on there. Pointing them in the right direction enabled interaction, but they didn’t do it on their own. Thinking about this issue is something that I know Flickr is doing a lot internally, but a new option like Google+ doesn’t seem to help things particularly.

It’s worth saying, again, that you can go too far by examining simple numbers like this. I’d love to see a totally scientific experiment to find out what attention on various networks was like. But I do know one thing: from where I’m sitting, Google+ looks like a genuine platform for sharing the things that matter to you — and in social networks, that’s what is really important.