Death by Google? Web Giant Could Challenge Facebook

College students sound off on social networking likes and dislikes.

August 2, 2010, 6:23 PM

Aug. 4, 2010— -- With the recent news of Google's plans to create a social networking site that could rival Facebook, many people have wondered how any site could overthrow the social-media giant.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Google is talking to several top online game developers about creating a broader social networking site that would offer social games and could compete with Facebook. Google's talks are still in the early stages but what would it take for Facebook to meet its match?

Facebook is the largest social networking site, boasting more than 500 million active users worldwide. College students are known for spending hours on the site, browsing through their friends' pictures, writing on other people's "walls" and updating their status, among other things. So far, most college students seem to be satisfied with Facebook.

Lauren Walters, 21, a graduate student at Clemson University in South Carolina, has had a Facebook account for about six years. She said she uses it often, usually twice a day during the school year.

When asked if she thought the site could be improved, she said, "I'm pretty happy with Facebook as it is."

Still, several college students across the country offered some suggestions for what Google could do with its new social networking site to make them kiss Facebook goodbye.

When Ryan Khuri, 21, a junior majoring in English/philosophy at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, joined Facebook, he saw it as "the simple alternative to MySpace." But now, Khuri said, Facebook "seems to be building more and more clutter."

Northwestern medical student Jack Dougherty, 22, agreed. Although he deleted his Facebook account a few years ago to help prevent his spending too much time on his computer, he said, one thing that would make Facebook more appealing to him is to simplify it.

"I hated all of the add-ons and extensions that cluttered up everyone's page," Dougherty said.

Many college students cite third-party applications as the main cause of Facebook clutter. Requests asking users to join popular games on Facebook such as Farmville and Mafia Wars often build up in many Facebook accounts.

"The constant invites to join them are annoying," said Walters, who said she uses Facebook for "social networking, and not for playing games."

If Walters' and other college students' irritation at the games on Facebook is any indication, Google probably shouldn't count on the gaming aspect of its social networking site to win over Facebook users.

Create a More Efficient Chat System

Many students pointed out a fatal flaw in one of their favorite Facebook features: The instant messaging chat system often freezes up or logs a user off, without warning.

Stephen Pishney, 20, a chemical engineering senior at Pennsylvania State University, said, "It's not always reliable, and it loses the conversation from time-to-time. Yet so many people continue to use it."

While Facebook users can send video messages to each other and post videos to each other's "walls," many students point to the absence of a Skype-like video chat feature.

Walters said she would be open to trying Google's new social networking site but isn't sure she'd leave Facebook for it, although the ability to chat with other users on the site via webcam could possibly win her over.

"Probably, for me, the biggest selling feature I would be excited about would be a video chat component added to it," Walters said.

Perhaps the greatest paradox with social networking is that users want to be able to share more information with more people, yet still maintain control over their privacy. Facebook has made great strides to balance those two desires.

In May, the company announced a new, simplified way to control privacy settings on its site. Amar Patel, 19, a sophomore studying information science at the University of Pittsburgh, actually considered deleting his Facebook account when he thought his privacy was at stake.

"But then [Facebook] changed all that so I stayed on," he said.

Facebook's privacy settings are now much more customizable, allowing users to choose which of their friends can see statuses or links they post and allowing users to block certain friends from seeing certain parts of their profile. It also made less user information available to the public.

But Patel and many students say the privacy settings can still be confusing.

Sarah Idzik, 24, a University of Chicago alumnus who plans to attend graduate school at New York University, said Facebook has a "complex system of privacy settings," which she called "ridiculous."

Check Out the Fine Print

These complaints about privacy could stem from users' unfamiliarity with the available privacy options. Patel admitted that he has not read Facebook's privacy policy.

Pishney said he would like Facebook to limit the amount of his information that can be seen by the public, but added, "To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what that info is at this point."

With their insatiable appetite for staying connected all the time, many college students find themselves checking several accounts per day, whether it's e-mail, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Many students suggest integrating all the accounts into one main social networking site.

Because Google owns YouTube, Patel said, it would be a good idea for Google to integrate YouTube into its social networking site, allowing users to comment on videos without switching sites.

"The problem with the web is that there are a lot of good sites for various things, but nothing really ties them together," Patel said. "Sure, you've got the ability to post things to your status or maybe share a link with a friend, but it could be so much more than that."

Even if Google incorporated these suggestions into a new social networking site, however, it may not be enough to unseat the already wildly popular Facebook.

Paul Levinson, a Fordham University professor and author of "New New Media," a book exploring social media trends, said he doesn't believe Google can overtake Facebook.

"I doubt that [Google's version of Facebook] will be very successful for Google because people are already on Facebook," Levinson said. "There are 500 million users, and unless there's something much easier and better, I don't think it will be successful."

If anyone is going to knock the social media king off its throne, Levinson said, it will likely be a small group of people, not a major corporation such as Google.

"The big social media, they all are the result of a small number of people getting together," Levinson said. "Every single successful social media group started as a couple of people. That's completely the opposite of the way Google is attempting to do this."

He cited YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as some examples of successful social media companies that started off as small startups.

If Not Google ... ?

Facebook, for instance, was founded in 2004 by college students who launched the site from their Harvard dorm room.

Maybe the college students who gave suggestions on how to create a better social networking site will take their own advice and, like the Facebook founders before them, create a social media giant that will dominate the Internet.

Or maybe Google will find the formula to the success of Facebook, and create a site that can successfully compete with it.

"There's no doubt that at some time in the future there will be new sites that might be better, sleeker, easier to use," Levinson said. "But I don't think it's going to happen with Google."

In the meantime, many college students will continue to voraciously consume the main site that has been successfully feeding their appetite for social networking: Facebook.

Just ask Bess McAdams, 25, a student studying English language and literature at the University of Michigan.

She said she checks Facebook about 10 times a day and leaves the site open on her browser for hours at a time. She even signed up for the option to receive Facebook notifications via text messages to her cell phone.

As McAdams put it, "I'm never not on Facebook." contributor Amy Rigby is a member of the University of Florida ABC News on Campus bureau and contributor Danielle Waugh is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Syracuse, NY.