Can Google (yes, Google) save social media in 2020?

Laugh all you want. Google’s new approach to social might be the way forward for brands.

Is there a “good” social network? If so, which one?

If not, what’s the way forward in 2020 for companies and brands to leverage the social internet to connect with and serve customers?

The social media-using public (which numbers somewhere between two and four billion people, depending on whom you ask) is divided up into dozens or even hundreds of impenetrable walled gardens. Users who use Twitter exclusively are blind to what’s happening on Facebook. Facebook-only users have no idea what’s going on with TikTok. And so on with dozens of social sites.

Brands seeking to connect with consumers are stymied by sites like Facebook, which sever that connection through algorithmic control of News Feeds. Pay through the nose, and you might reach a low two-digit percentage of the customers who followed your Page to stay in touch. Fail to pay, and you could be looking at a less-than-two-percent access rate.

Maintaining a productive social presence is getting increasingly problematic.

The problem with Facebook and Twitter

Facebook’s growth appears to have plateaued or declined in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Twitter reported even bigger declines this year. Bots, many of which are state-sponsored and exist for using disinformation for causing social division, continue to plague social sites like Twitter, despite huge effort by the company to eliminate them. Facebook recently removed 583 million fake accounts that, until the removal, were engaging as and with real users.

Social media is partly blamed for growing political division and social strife, and the problem is getting so bad that brands need to increasingly wonder if social sites are a “bad neighborhood” they don’t really want to be associated with.

The one “bright spot” for social user growth is TikTok, which (after spending a billion dollars on mostly Facebook and Instagram advertising) is alone in marking meteoric user growth. The social network, called the second coming of Vine, involves 15-second algorithmically sorted videos with user comments at the bottom. TikTok algorithms favor memes, music-related videos and frivolous-but-addictive videos that emphasize body-language communication and humor.

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The Chinese company that owns TikTok, called ByteDance, is now valued at over $75 billion. But the service has been embroiled in controversy. As a Chinese company, it’s subject to theoretical censorship and user tracking by the Chinese government — the same government that actively bans all of TikTok’s foreign competitors. TikTok is being investigated by the US government, and it’s not clear what the result of that investigation will be.

TikTok avoids much of the social and political division of other social sites by making no pretense of supporting free speech and simply banning just about all substantive content. The app’s terms of service prohibit discussion of independence movements, national leaders, politics, protests and lots of other things. It doesn’t ban trolling per se — in fact, most TikTok videos seem vaguely trollish by design.

TikTok as a trend, in fact, may represent total victory by trolls on social networks over the now-quaint idea of social media as a “public square” where citizens engaged constructively over interesting and important matters. Instead, the “cream” that rises to the top of TikTok and dominates the service are more likely to include videos of people eating chicken, Gummy Bears singing Adele songs, head-banging dogs and the TikTok standard of teenagers dancing and lip-syncing to profanity-laced hip-hop lyrics.

The TikTok response to my characterization, of course, would be “OK, boomer.” But the point is that for a variety of reasons — while the old-and-busted social sites grow ever more problematic for brand conversations — the new hotness isn’t so hot, either. Where do you go if you want to engage customers on social?

Does Google have the answer to social engagement?

Google killed its Google+ social network platform for consumers in April, and claimed to retain it for business customers. The business version is less like a social network and more like a cloud intranet, and very few companies use it.

Google ended Plus because of “low usage” and because of two data leaks, which were probably not exploited by hackers. Since then, Google has made some strange moves in the social space.

Google runs an incubator called Area 120, which created a social networking app called Shoelace. The app, which is limited to New York City for now, is designed to enable people to interact based on local activities and events, which users can create and organize. The app theoretically competes with Facebook’s “Events” feature and is reminiscent of the Google+ Events feature and Google Schemer, which was launched in 2011 for organizing activities.

Google also acquired a TikTok-like social video sharing app called Firework. Unlike TikTok’s shorter videos, Firework enables 30-second videos, which can be viewed in both portrait and landscape modes by simply turning the phone during the video. The feature is called “Reveal.” (Facebook also launched a TikTok-competing app last year called Lasso.)

These two social networking moves are obviously too little, too late. Some say, for example, that Firework is “better” than TikTok. But it doesn’t matter. Google+ was “better” than Facebook. And Google’s reputation for killing products and services (which makes the public hesitant to embrace any new Google thing, especially in the social space) is far worse now than it was when Google+ was a thing.

Shoelace and Firework have zero chance of succeeding.

But other social initiatives by Google might be ahead of the curve. No, really!

Is ‘openness’ the solution to social?

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey unveiled plans recently to create a decentralized standard for social media called Bluesky and that Twitter would support it. Dorsey says that the initiative could use Web3 foundations like blockchain to tackle the biggest problems with social media, including the prevalence of fake news and divisive, vitriolic content.

Facebook also said it’s opening up a bit. The company recently announced an option to transfer photos and videos (protected by encryption) from Facebook to Google Photos, with other services to be supported later. The feature is expected to be globally available by the middle of next year.

The founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, is also trying to fix social. His unlikely solution is an ad-free social network called WT.Social. The social network is invitation-only, but you can invite yourself by paying. He intends for WT.Social to avoid the whole fake-news, fake-users, troll-centric trap that Facebook and Twitter fall into by employing user moderation, as with Wikipedia. Volunteer moderators will have the power to delete content and users will be banned for trolling and other anti-social behavior.

The success of any of these initiatives seems unlikely. But is the general idea of more openness, universality and user control the best way forward?

As the power and value of social media declines, the original Google social strategy might end up being the right one.

It’s hard to remember now, but before Google+ (i.e. before 2011), Google’s stated strategy was to bake social features into services that were not social networks, rather than creating a walled garden.

The most successful implementation of this idea was YouTube, which is a video sharing site with social features that’s so social it’s commonly counted among social network and, as such, is considered the world’s second largest social network after Facebook. Google is considered a loser in social. But the company either has the second most successful social network or — more likely — it’s ability to bake social into services that aren’t primarily social networks is a winner.

Consider: Many of the improvements that Google has made to its popular Maps product are social additions that help businesses inform or serve customers. The most recently announced such feature enables users to follow “Local Guides,” which are active reviewers and posters of photos on Maps. For example, a user who frequently reviews and posts photos of restaurants might be designated by Google as a Local Guide. (Google rewards Local Guides with perks like first access to new Maps features, free and discounted Google services, and also local meetups.) The follow feature is currently being piloted in a few major cities around the world, and should roll out globally next year. There are currently some 120 million Local Guides around the world.

The capability to follow Local Guides follows another follow feature introduced last year with which users can follow a business, and get updates on products and events, which directly competes with Google Pages for businesses.

Google Photos, which has more than a billion users, is getting more social networking features. About a week ago, Google announced the capability to share a photo or video with a note on the Google Photos network. The feature enables back-and-forth chat like Instagram, Snapchat or any number of social networks — except Photos has far more users than those services. The Photos service has long offered the ability to share and converse over albums of photos, and the app has a “Sharing” tab that gives you a stream of social and photo-posting activity among the people you follow.

Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok have shown that social sharing is increasingly centered on pictures and videos. Even Facebook is testing a feature called Popular Photos, which gives a feed of photos from friends inside Facebook (without so many words).

Twitter announced this week that it has rolled out a system that compresses and degrades the quality of photos on the site far less than before. Announced by Twitter engineer Nolan O’Brien, the new approach keeps photos at 97 percent quality. The new system enables companies to maintain more control over the visual quality of their brand as it’s presented on Twitter. The company also announced that it will support Apple’s Live Photo’s, which are three-second videos that accompany still photos when taken with an iPhone. The animation will loop and repeat infinitely.

Enter Google Photos

There’s no question that social is getting more visual. Google Photos might have an advantage in visual social networking.

As with so many Google properties, and in keeping with the original social strategy of Google, Photos is not a social network, but a photo site with social baked in.

And finally, good old-fashioned search is getting more social. Search for any brand on Google Search, and you’ll get the website, the YouTube videos, recent social posts on several networks and direct links to contact. Search reaches over the walls of the walled gardens.

As every new social thing further divides and alienates the world, Google’s core properties — YouTube, Maps, Search, Gmail — continue to serve as the common denominator — the platforms everyone uses.

As social networking grows increasingly sour, maybe the best and most popular social network won’t be a social network, but just the internet with social features built in. In other words, maybe the only “good” social network is no social network.

If that’s the future, Google may end up dominating social engagement after all.

Maybe the best way in 2020 to engage with customers is via Maps, Search, Gmail and even Photos, instead of participating in the ugly mess that is Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok.