After struggling for years to build its own social network, Google is trying again — this time with a confusingly designed app called Spaces.
Here's the basic concept: Spaces wants to give you new ways to set up group chats with your friends. In these chatrooms, you can plan trips, talk about shared interests and, of course, link each other to relevant YouTube videos and Google search results.
It'll probably flop. And this is why.
While Spaces combines a number of individually innovative features, its biggest problem is that nobody seems to know what the app is truly for. Over on Hacker News — a place you'd expect to be open to new experiments — the vast majority of early responses have almost universally expressed puzzlement, if not outright skepticism.
Because Spaces can be used for practically anything, from building to-do lists to discussing "Game of Thrones" spoilers, it may as well be the Swiss-army knife of apps — a utility for all occasions and projects. It is what you make of it.
And that is precisely Spaces's shortcoming in a world where apps have become increasingly specialized. Instagram and Snapchat are built around sharing user-created photos and videos. WhatsApp has become one of the world's most dominant platforms for messaging. Slack is that, but for work and business. The most successful social apps of the day are organized around a single, dedicated purpose.
Spaces is not that. Spaces is a social app that's looking for a purpose. And it's not clear Internet users will readily give it one.
In its blog post announcing Spaces, Google said that as it stands, sharing in small groups "isn't easy."
"From book clubs to house hunts to weekend trips and more, getting friends into the same app can be challenging," Google said. "Sharing things typically involves hopping between apps to copy and paste links. Group conversations often don’t stay on topic… We wanted to build a better group sharing experience."
It's true: Switching apps to paste a link can be a chore. So is trying to find that one line of text from a hundred chats ago. But one of the top reasons that convincing people to use the same app is hard is because there are already so many apps that can accomplish the same thing, such that settling on one can be difficult. And they all have their loyalists. Some people prefer email. Others use Evernote. Still others use Google's own products, like Google Docs or Spreadsheets.
That Google apparently believes the right way to fix this non-problem is with another app suggests that the search giant is still looking for The One Social Platform to Rule Them All, when the rest of the Internet has already moved on. We're deep into the next generation of social networking, where general-purpose socializing has transitioned to more specific, siloed forms of socializing. Some of these silos happen to be owned by general-purpose social networks (in the way Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, for instance). Still, rather than explicitly destroying those silos and integrating them into the parent product, the siloed brands have continued living with their own branding and personality.
Where Spaces appears to shine are its more technical accomplishments. Just like another product Google debuted recently, users of Spaces can search Google and YouTube straight from the app, and insert the results right into the chat stream without leaving it. That can potentially save a lot of time. And Spaces can also do image recognition — type in "skyline," and Spaces will show you images in your chat history that match that description, even if there are no keywords associated with it. With the growing sophistication of artificial intelligence, it's great to see the fruits of that labor make their way into more products.
But neither of those features will likely be enough to propel Spaces onto everyone's smartphones. If Google really wanted to drive adoption, it might consider putting that technology into Google Hangouts, which itself is closely integrated with Google's previous attempt at a social network, Google Plus.
Spaces is an app that's out of its time. And today's Internet users probably won't have the time or the space to fit it on their already-crowded phones.