Social networking enters the dreaded “It’s Complicated” stage

What do Bill Belichick defensive schemes, Tom Clancy novels, Google+ and Facebook have in common? The answer is that all are so byzantine that they leave many people scratching their heads to figure them out.

For NFL playbooks and spy novels, such intricacies are the norm. Social networking should not be that way. The trouble is the latter is rapidly descending into a black hole of complexity that you now really do need one of those Missing Manuals to figure out the basics.

With all of the news coming out of Google (s GOOG) and Facebook this week, our relationship with social networking sites has entered the dreaded “it’s complicated” stage. That’s a shame, since it’s simplicity that attracted us in the first place.

Google’s minimalist interface and ability to execute a search exceptionally well is what catapulted it to the forefront. It made us quickly see just how bloated other services like Yahoo had become as they aimed to become portals. Now Google is a complex portal.

Facebook, much the same, rose to prominence because it was just so simple compared to others. Back in 2007, author/pundit Jeff Jarvis praised its “elegant organization” as the nucleus of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s genius.  Now, however, the interface has grown a lot more complicated. It too is a portal.

Somewhere along the way both Google and Facebook lost sight of keeping things simple

Today Google+ and Facebook are locked in a features arms race the likes of which we haven’t seen since Microsoft Word defeated Wordperfect back in the early 1990s. Both are rapidly adding buttons and gizmos to keep a fickle public in their grasp.

On the one hand, some might see this as a smart move. History has shown us that no single community or social platform has had staying power more than a few years. Users get bored, new platforms emerge and there’s churn. Features encourage tighter connections, more sharing and increase the emotional switching “costs.” It can keep users in their fold – even the disgruntled.

But there’s a balance, and both are starting to go too far

The flip side is that, in social networking, you can go too fast. People already are time starved. Adding new features that cause consumers to have to invest precious mental processing cycles to figure them out may have the opposite effect to what’s intended.

I don’t fault the platforms for innovating. They have to. However, they should consider going a little slower and phase in new advances over time, rather than all at once. Be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Make some features “mandatory,” but allow users to discover the hidden delights.

This is even more pivotal in social networking because of privacy. Already a lot of people fear that Google and Facebook know too much about them. As feature creep becomes the norm, both platforms are encouraging more sharing, not less. The problem is this requires that they add tighter privacy and sharing settings. While welcome, this only creates even more complexity and a vicious cycle ensues. Worse, they’re bucking the trend.

As technology pervades every aspect of our lives, less is the new more

In computing, Apple (s AAPL) has remained true to this approach its entire history. Microsoft (s MSFT) meanwhile, with its bold new Metro interfaces, is also aiming to make things simpler for users (Microsoft is an Edelman client). In social networking, Tumblr and Instagram are making inroads because  they always keep things simple and elegant. They do a one or two  things really well and they don’t rush. The same is true for mobile platforms like 37 Signals and Instapaper, both of which have eschewed bloat.

Yet they all innovate.

Google and Facebook can learn a few things from these other companies. They should, of course, innovate. However, they must do so carefully. Because if they go too fast, it moves them away from what made them attractive in the first place. And that’s elegance. As they add new features, consumers now must invest more mental energy, not less. This is especially the case when it comes to privacy. It violates what usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s cardinal rule – “Don’t make me think.”

Such bloat over time may have precisely the opposite intended result. It could drive users away rather than keep them closer. And it creates a distinct avenue for disruptive, elegant competitors to come along just as Google and Facebook did in their salad days to gain share.

Steve Rubel is EVP/Global Strategy for Edelman – the world’s largest public relations firm. He tweets @steverubel.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jasminejennyjen.