Google joins battle for soul of the Internet with Google Plus
Google launched a limited beta of their new social networking service last week, and was quickly overwhelmed with traffic as eager alpha geeks rushed to find something, anything that would liberate them from Facebook.
Love it or hate it, Facebook has now become the Internet. It’s the most popular site in the world, a one-stop shop for personal messaging, public discussion, political activism and link swapping worldwide.
Google’s new service is called Google Plus, and if you followed Google’s previous attempts at social networking, I won’t blame you for being skeptical. Google Buzz was a disaster and Google Wave broke my heart. Google Plus is starting with a better design philosophy than Facebook did, but even if they do everything right, it’s going to be an uphill battle all the way.
The Internet is basically entering its third evolution now, as expectations become more complex and the last few stragglers make it part of their daily lives.
Phase One was just about finding stuff. In the early days, Yahoo could fit the whole Internet in a series of link lists. Early users jumped on the Internet to find news, trade tech articles, and fight with a self-selected group of early adopters on Usenet.
Phase Two was about sharing stuff. Google made search engines reliable and fast, so the Internet became more about connecting with people and sharing links with friends.
Google won the battle for Phase One and Facebook won the battle for Phase Two.
Now we come to Phase Three. We know how to search and we know how to share, but now we’ve got so much crap coming at us 24 hours a day, even moderate users are drowning in status updates. We’ve got so many “friends” interacting with us in so many different contexts, we can’t just lump them all into one stream anymore.
Phase Two was about making connections. Phase Three will be about managing them.
Google Plus is built around the concept of Circles. Every friend you add to the service must be added to a circle. Plus starts with a set of recommended categories: Friends, Family and Acquaintances. Most people will immediately add a circle for work, then they’ll make a circle for “Super Friends” – the eight or nine people in the world they can share everything with.
This is the function I’ve been waiting for, the function I’ve been screaming about in this column for the past two years.
Facebook is great but modern people don’t just have one face. I follow about 300 people on Facebook and each one of those people follows me for a different reason. Some of them like the columns, some of them like my political rants, some of them knew me in high school, and some of them have known me all my life.
But the people who like the columns don’t necessarily care about politics, and the people who knew me in high school don’t necessarily like what I write. I always feel a little guilty when I post to Facebook because I know any post that appeals to ten people is likely to annoy ten others.
With Google Plus I get to make the choice, and since everybody else is free to make their own categories, too, they can choose what box to put me in. This concept is so simple, I can’t believe Facebook has botched it so badly. Facebook has lists and sharing restrictions but they’re almost impossible to use.
Human interaction occurs in context, but Facebook’s one-stream-fits-all approach encourages people to ignore that context, leading to embarrassing, even disastrous consequences. The people who follow my column are nice, but they don’t need to see status updates when I go on vacation.
My friends love me, but they don’t all agree with my politics. A link that would be catnip for economics nerds might seem boring or even insulting to them. Forcing your political opinions on strangers isn’t just rude; it’s dangerous.
Interactions in the workplace occur in a very specific social context. It was bad enough when all we had to worry about was offending people, but now the things you share at work may be a violation of federal law. In this climate you’re not just protecting yourself when you segregate your social networks, you’re protecting your boss and your co-workers from things they really don’t want to know.
Google and Facebook have just entered into a steel-cage death match for the soul of the Internet. Can Google Plus gain market share before Facebook copies their best feature? My instincts say no. I think it will be easier for Facebook to add Circles than it will be for Google to steal its users.
I think we’re up against the Grandma Factor. Facebook has become so ubiquitous, even Grandma is using it. Will parents and grandparents be willing to follow their kids to a new platform?
I’m guessing no, but maybe that’s a Plus for you.