This was the year social networks became normal. Next time you're in a crowded restaurant, close your eyes and listen to the chatter around you. Count how many times you hear the word "Facebook" in an hour. This year, the number of people on Facebook reached 800 million. Remember when it was for college students only?

Google+ also launched this year. It's not just a new social network; it's what Google+ chief Vic Gundotra called "the + part" of the new Google. Every part of the Google experience, especially search, involves social connections now. And Twitter was no also-ran in 2011. It became a system-level part of every iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch on Apple's new iOS 5. In the ongoing war of the social networks, this year's pivotal battles were over three key territories: identity, location and sharing. How did it play out?

Identity: Who Are You?

Now that the whole Web is social, more or less, the key players are vying to be our universal online credentials. For the big social networks, power over the whole Web is at stake. They want to be the go-to place to find someone online, and they want to be the way we log in to every Web service we use.


Google+, by the very act of launching, made identity an essential layer of the way Google works. Google+ and the +1 button are a form of social SEO now, personalizing ever more parts of the Google experience.

Google+ doesn't have anywhere close to Facebook's reach yet, but as Sergey Brin and Vic Gundotra told us at Web 2.0 this year, Google isn't concerned. Practically everybody on the Web uses Google for something, and now Google+ is woven into every bit of it.


Facebook, for its part, has wanted to be your one true login since long before 2011. This year, Facebook concentrated on its internal notion of identity, re-imagining the profile as Timeline, an illustrated history of our entire lives, like a scrapbook or photo album on the Web.

Timeline is beautiful, but it's a little creepy. Even Facebook must think so, because the launch of Timeline has been delayed for months with no explanation. It finally launched in RWW's home country of New Zealand this week, but there's no telling how long the worldwide rollout will take.

Facebook's hesitation might be warranted. There's a mounting feeling around the Web that this monolithic, siloed identity, like Facebook and Google are promoting, is not the way to go. Chris Poole, a.k.a. moot, articulated this view for us at Web 2.0. "Google and Facebook would have you believe that you're a mirror," moot said, "but in fact, we're more like diamonds." That is, we're multi-faceted.


Poole said that Twitter is the only major social network doing it right, allowing pseudonyms, multiple accounts, and parody accounts, all of which are bannable offenses on Google+ and Facebook, but which Poole points out are vital, real-life, necessary ways for us to express ourselves.

And Twitter was no slouch this year when it comes to identity. Just as Apple launched the blockbuster new iPhone 4S, it added Twitter to the operating system as a single sign-in service. Anything one does on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch can now use one's Twitter accounts for identity. The day after iOS 5 launched, Twitter sign-ups from iOS tripled.

(Update: this article initially stated that "Twitter sign-ups tripled" after the iOS 5 launch. This was a widely reported interpretation of CEO Dick Costolo's remarks on stage at Web 2.0. He later clarified on Twitter that he meant Twitter sign-ups from iOS, not overall.)

Identity Winner: Twitter

Note: At Web 2.0, Vic Gundotra told us that pseudonyms are coming to Google+. We'll believe it when we see it.

Location: Where Are You?

This year, all the major social networks took big steps in mobile apps and services. Location services in particular played a part in this strategy.

There's a big opportunity for Facebook, Twitter and Google+ here, because 70% of Americans still have no idea what geolocation apps are. Location helps social networks find nearby stuff for their users to do, and it also provides great data for advertising and revenue streams for local commerce.


Twitter's location services are, in a word, a mess. Pretty much all you get from location services on Twitter is a list of what inane nuggets of hashtag nonsense are trending in your area. Twitter got beaten pretty badly by Facebook and Google+ in location this year.


Has anybody else ever noticed how the Facebook Places icon looks like a four in a square? I just thought that was interesting.

Facebook overhauled its mobile apps this year to bring a more full-featured, consistent experience to handsets (and the iPad, finally). Its mobile usage is set to explode. And with the new Timeline, location sharing on Facebook takes on an element of storytelling. By checking into a place on Facebook, you're recording it in your personal history.

Notably, Facebook bought Gowalla, the ailing Foursquare competitor, but it looks like the location data from that service won't be incorporated in any way. This is probably just an acquisition of design talent for the Timeline project.


Google+ also built a great mobile service this year, at least for Android users. For iOS users, we will note that there is, at least, a Google+ app. It's lame. There's no way around that. But it does support location.

Google has great reasons to extend location services into its social network. Local shopping and search is the next frontier of Google's business. One obvious way Google+ will factor in is through check-in deals. Google bolstered its daily deals services this year, and now it looks like check-in deals are coming to Google+.

This is one of the main ways Foursquare and Yelp do business, of course, but nobody uses dedicated location services. As Google executives are keen to remind us, everybody who uses Google is exposed to Google+. If any location service is going to take off, Google+ seems like the one.

Location Winner: Google+

Sharing: What Are You Doing?

Sharing is the most important part about any social network. The things our friends and followees share are the main reasons we visit these sites. The three main players in social networking all fleshed out their visions of how sharing should work, and they're radically different.


Twitter is a simple service, so its core functionality doesn't change much. It did get a few nifty sharing upgrades this year, though. Everything shared on Twitter is wrapped in a link, and Twitter rolled out its link wrapper this year, changing the way all links are shared. allows Twitter users to see more of the full URL, so they get some context about where the link goes.

Twitter also launched its own image sharing, replacing the need for third-party services, and it built image galleries on profile pages to go along with it. Your last 100 tweeted photos are automatically displayed in a nice gallery on your Twitter profile. This is a great way to quickly scope out someone to see if they're worth following.

Finally, Twitter enabled photo sharing for SMS users, and this shows something cool about the essence of Twitter. Twitter's very format was formed by the constraints of SMS, and it remains to this day the most mobile-friendly social network. Its support for SMS makes it accessible to billions of people. That doesn't mean billions are using it, but it could happen.


Google+ is the first big way to share things on Google at all, and it's a massive effort. The Google+ stream supports animated graphics, big embedded videos, and rich snippets of articles and Web pages. The new Google Music store puts giant music players right in the G+ stream. You can even share whole Google Maps on Plus.

As a result, Google+ feels very loud. Plus, the stream is always moving; when new content appears, it bumps the whole thing down. It's like a big game of information Tetris. (Someone brilliant said that on Twitter. Remind me in the comments.) Google's working on great tools for exploring the sharing data, though. But the trending stuff, while leaps and bounds more interesting than Twitter's trending topics, is still crudely implemented, and Ripples might be a bit too geeky for mass adoption.

The major innovation for sharing on Google+ was supposed to be Circles. You can share selectively to your circles, and you can read your circles' shares individually. That part works great. But managing circles is a pain, and the information Tetris problem makes the whole thing hard to read.


At its f8 developers' conference this year, Facebook transformed itself. It launched Timeline, and it also introduced "frictionless sharing," its new vision of Facebook's Open Graph platform. It makes some sharing automated, so users don't even have to think about it.

That's a controversial move. We've weighed the pros and cons of frictionless sharing here at RWW. Some of us don't like it at all. But it's just an option. The old ways of sharing on Facebook are still available.

And they're even easier to control. Facebook is much better about selective sharing now, offering a clear drop-down menu next to every post to control who can see it. It also launched its smart lists this year in response to Google+ circles, and it's actually a better feature in many ways. Instead of making you busily manage your lists, Facebook sorts friends into smart lists automatically. Google bought Katango to work on this problem, but for now, Facebook is ahead of the pack on selective sharing.

Sharing Winner: Facebook

What do you think? Do you take sides in the social networking battle? What new features do you expect in the coming year? Do you think any newcomers can threaten the Big 3? Share your thoughts in the comments.