With Shoelace, Its Latest Foray into (Local) Social, Google Aims to Do for Friends What Tinder Did for Dating
Photo by Priscilla du Preez.
It is common wisdom that making friends, which for many come (and go) so easily in childhood and young adulthood, becomes harder as we age. As work changes, shifting from a life-long engagement that almost always brought people together physically to gigs that are often executed digitally from a living-room couch, and more people move around the world, loneliness has become an epidemic. Forty-seven percent of Americans say they are lonely, and nearly 20% of Brits said they are always or often lonely in a 2018 Red Cross study.
Enter Shoelace, Google’s latest leap into social after shuttering Google+ earlier this year. Google+ failed as a response to Facebook, a model of social networking the average user of that 2 billion-strong platform no longer even recognizes. Who would speak today of Facebook as a company that puts the entire social experience (of college, originally, and then of life) online? It’s more like a mix of news stories, political rants from your Aunt Beth, comments on memes, stray photos that do not make it to Facebook-owned Instagram, and the very occasional big life update: I’m getting married, moving, maybe changing jobs.
The failure of Google+ and Facebook’s definitive shift into something other than an engrossing social experience online matter because, while you wouldn’t know it if you were simply following the number of big social apps to surface in recent years (not many), there is a huge hole in the social networking space. For all its success, Facebook has not actually solved what tech utopians might imagine the digital world could do for the social experience: actually, as Facebook has always claimed it does, bring us together, helping the many lonely adults out there find friends or even just ameliorating a solo trip abroad by uniting folks with common thoughts and interests.
This is what Shoelace, with its local focus, appears poised to do were it to take off. The app is currently only available to a small number of people, on an invitation-only basis, living in New York. As its raison d’être, Google offers: “Shoelace is a mobile app that helps connect people with shared interests through in-person activities. It’s great for folks who have recently moved cities or who are looking to meet others who live nearby.” Users can join Loops, which are interests that aim to give people a reason to get together (tennis, dogs, art), and the app will provide activities each day that people in the same neighborhoods in the same Loops can do together.
The focus on local and on events could lead to what I see as a misconception about Shoelace’s ambitions and maximum utility, namely that it’s just a competitor for one part of Facebook, Events. In its write-up, The Verge wrote, “Rather than trying to create a new all-encompassing social network to rival the likes of Facebook, Shoelace seems to have much more modest ambitions that take aim at Facebook’s ubiquitous Events functionality.”
Perhaps. But is finding friends, or others with whom to socialize, not the most central and yet unachieved aim of social networking? One that hinges on location and would be a gold mine for advertising, as it captures users far down the funnel, all the way at the point where they are ready to get together to spend some time at a local business? What if, in the same way online dating has gone from disreputable to de rigueur over the course of 10 years, finding friends online is something young people all do in 10 years, an engineering problem that Tinder rival Bumble is already trying to crack?
That would be a pretty big social network. The ambitions may not be so modest.