The sociological breakthrough of Google+

My last Facebook update said:

Too busy playing on Google+ to check FB

And that was five days ago.

The truth is that I’ve long been too busy doing anything to check Facebook. I’ve secretly, and increasingly, loathed Facebook since I joined it, which was relatively early (beginning of 2007, I believe), because my beat at The Economist back then was Silicon Valley, and it was simply part of my job to be fiddling with stuff like this. (I’m not the only one loathing FB, apparently.)

Ah, 2007. That seems like a distant era now. I still recall meeting Mark Zuckerberg, who was not yet used to meeting anybody, much less the heads of state and glitterati that surround him now, and who was awkward even by the standards of Silicon Valley’s skewed autism spectrum. (Here is the profile I wrote about him soon after that meeting.)

So anyway, I was and remained “on Facebook”, the way one just is. How could I not be? But I was almost entirely passive (observing incoming updates without sending outgoing ones). And I was proud of my wife, who is savvy in such matters and simply said ‘I’ll sit this one out’. She never signed up.

Why this skepticism?

Because Facebook is fundamentally (=unalterably) indiscreet.

And it is fundamentally indiscreet because it is architecturally indiscrete. (Forgive me that word play.) Meaning: you cannot distinguish easily between different degrees of intimacy among the people in your social graph. The various relationships are not discrete, not separate.

Mark’s vision (as he told it to me back then, and as I described it in my early profile) was to be a “mapmaker” (like the heroic explorers of the Renaissance) of human connections. To him that was an algorithmic challenge. I always knew that his premise was unsound sociologically.

Tell me: In real life, how often do you walk up to somebody and request to be “friends”, then begin “sharing” pictures of your naked baby?

How wonderfully warm and fuzzy do you feel when somebody (oh yes, wasn’t he on my soccer team 30 years ago? Or perhaps I vomited on him at that keg party in 1989?) stops you on the street, asks to be “friends”, then shares his baby pictures with you?

Mark has been asking us all to do exactly this sort of thing. I thought it was strange back then, and I said so in our pages. (The picture at the top of this post is from that old piece.) But — did I mention? — that was in 2007. A different era, as I said.

Facebook then put us all on a roller coaster of “privacy” policies. (We’ve discussed some of them on this blog.) It got more and more confusing, and simultaneously boring. Who wants to put in the time to learn what Mark is up to now?

Plus: the page started to look like Times Square in the 1970s. (Remember, aesthetics really, really matter to me.)

So now we have Google+. It has not even officially been launched yet, but seems to have passed 18 million users today. We all thought that sheer fatigue would keep all of us from filling out yet another profile. But lo, everyone I know is already there, and we’re playing happily. Even my wife is trying it out.

Google+’s crucial innovation (among many others existing or planned) is Circles. You can make as many of them as you like. They can contain 1 person, 2 people, the Dunbar number, or the entire web. Because there are things you want to share with just one person, or with 2, or with lots, or with everybody (as on WordPress).

Ergo: Discrete → discreet

You also don’t have to ask anybody to be your “friend”. Nor do you have to reply to anybody’s “friend request”. You simple put people into the discrete/discreet spheres they already inhabit in your life.

Quite a few of us — Nick Bilton at the NYT, for example — seem to be optimistic that this is the beginning of a good trajectory. (Nothing new should be evaluated by what it is today. What matters is what it will become tomorrow.)

Now, if you had asked me which company I considered least likely to come up with such a sociologically simple and elegant solution, I might well have answered: Google.

Its founders and honchos worship algorithms more than Mark Zuckerberg does. (I used to exploit this geekiness as “color” in my profiles of Google from that era.) Google then seemed to live down to our worst fears by making several seriously awkward attempts at “social” (called Buzz and Wave and so forth).

But these calamities seem to have been blessings. Google seems to have been humbled into honesty and introspection. It then seems to have done the unthinkable and consulted not only engineers but … sociologists (yuck). And now it has come back with … this.

60 thoughts on “The sociological breakthrough of Google+

    • OK, do I reply here, or underneath your post? I’ll try both (an interesting social/techie problem yet to be resolved).

      I like your skepticism. It mainly seems to be captured in this paragraph:

      “For that minority of Facebook users who are posting frequently, here’s the main pain point I see mentioned: how do I get more people to read my stuff? How do I get more people to “Like” my project, my post, my group? More followers, more buzz, more influence, more more more publishing reach. Google’s response: here’s an interface to let you post to fewer people.”

      I think you have that wrong, at least when I extrapolate from myself.

      1) “How do I get more people to read my stuff?” Why not try … WordPress, Twitter or … a web site, as in plain old Web 1.0? Wasn’t that supposed to be the idea?

      2) “For that minority of Facebook users who are posting frequently….” I’m in the majority of FB users who do NOT post frequently, but that it because I do want to post to fewer people, in a more intimate way. (After all, for my public posts I have WordPress, right here).

      3) “Google’s response: here’s an interface to let you post to fewer people.” Actually, no. It’s: “here’s an interface that let’s you post to fewer OR more OR all people.” So my wife and I can communicate, my wife my parents and I, my wife my parents and my friends and I, and …. everybody.

      What do I know? I’ve been on G+ for a couple of days. But it’s a new trajectory.

    • Sociologically facebook may have it wrong. Financially not. As you stated fb is advertising yourself – at least the frequent posters do so. And advertising is where the money is.

      w8, why can’t I use my google account to post here?

  1. An excellent summary of why Google+ got it right, and Facebook did not. I was going to click on the +1 button, but did not find one ;-).

    • Well, Sergey, you sent me scampering to the Settings menu of WordPress and, several minutes and bruises later, I re-emerge to say:

      Behold the new +1 button above. 😉

      PS: What kind of Sergey are you? Not one whose last name rhymes with grin?

    • Welcome to the new +1 button :-).

      PS: no, different Sergey here, but I have to thank the one whose last name rhymes with grin, that at least some portion of Bay Area’s population can pronounce my first name.

      PPS: I think I am replying to my own comment, since I don’t see a Reply button under your reply.

    • I can tell you why I might have done that.

      My initial thought was that someone might get offended if I put them, say, in my Aquaintance circle rather than my Friends circle, or that someone might feel weired out if I put them in my Friends circle rather than my Acquaintance circle.

      That was before I realized that Google+ members can’t see what circles others put them in.

      Second, I figured it would give me a headache to try and figure out which circle to put each person in.

      Third, my personal philosophy about sharing information is loosely based on the old adage (either by or cribbed by Benjamin Franklin) that “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” So when it comes to online sharing, I use the following count: zero, one, public—there are things I wish to share with no one (so I won’t share them at all), and there are things I wish to share with one specific person/organization only (in which case I’ll resort to email or DM; or when I purchase something online, I don’t want anybody except the vendor to see my credit card number; etc.).

      Personally, I see no point in limiting my audience regarding anything that doesn’t fall into these two categories. Aside from my skepticism that anything shared with a group will stay in that group (“three can keep a secret if…”), this also reflects my personality, as I’ve always felt awkward in group situations. I am most comfortable alone, one-on-one, or in public, like on stage. Somehow, my brain has trouble processing the area between “one-on-one” and “in public.”

  2. Savvy. Yes. That’s my new euphemism. Like Jenny, I’m going to a class reunion soon. I’ll tell everyone that there are actually two people not on Facebook – and we’re savvy.

    re Google Plus, I’m thinking Venn diagram. How’s that for techie.

    What’s up with the new trophy thingy on Google News?

    • Trophy thingy? What trophy thingy?

      Now, Mr Crotchety, we all suspect that you are in fact not only crotchety but savvy indeed. You’re on record for composing Limericks with puns on quantum physics. Nuff said.

      So “savvy”: Not a euphemism. Sometimes you have to be savvy to non-participate in something (without prejudicing subsequent decision to participate in something else).

      Venn Diagram. Yup, Circles can overlap. But no need. You can share with all circles, or any number of circles at a time….

  3. As one whose main question about Facebook is “Why?”, I have to say I am equally mystified by Google +. But, then, I have always been a loner.

    • You’re less of a loner in online terms than you might think, Douglas. You’re a frequent and interactive commenter on this blog, and that’s no different than what people do on + or FB.

      By the same token, if blogs and the web already satisfy your needs, then you are right to ask “why?”. It is not even a good answer to come back with “why not?”

  4. You once warned about privacy issues on Facebook. I heeded that warning and quit FB in 2009.
    I’ve just demolished my gmail address because I don’t trust Google.
    I have deep reservations about privacy and the cookies Google stores.
    On the way down my road last spring, I passed a Google Volkswagen with a 20 foot periscope of a camera on top, photographing my privacy.

    Socially awkward people are everywhere. Is it any wonder that the internet attracts them?

    We are in a new and odd age. The old systems pale.

    Today, I took out a real paper thank-you note and wrote to a person who had us over for dinner.

    • As it happens, I also sent out a paper thank-you note today. The first in a long time. It was to an old friend of my parents’, who had sent me a newspaper clipping (!) with a typewriter-written note attached.

      Anyhoo: I sympathize, but also think that you’ve missed a nuance: The companies/brands (such as Google) behind our online behavior are not the primary threat to our safety. We are that threat.

      So Google only “reads” your emails algorithmically. No humans are allowed to read it. Your email is totally safe unless somebody steals your password (but that is no different than somebody stealing your house key.)

      By contrast, the trouble we get in on FB etc nowadays comes from the stuff we voluntarily “share”. It’s a psychological, cultural and individual failure.

    • ……..Google only “reads” ….gmails algorithmically……..

      I’m surprised to learn this. I had been sure, what with my seeing ads on the sidebars of my gmails advertising the exact same things I was writing about in my missives, that Google had many thousands of people employed just to read people’s gmails, to enable ads to be placed for their greatest effect. I was even thinking of applying to Google for a part-time job as a gmail reader.

      Now, it seems, I must find another way to supplement my income.

  5. Google Plus opens up a new identity in all of us. Hear me out – In his book, Identity and violence, Amartya Sen says that each person has multiple identities – Father, son, neighbour, friend and murderer (during the riots). You would behave differently with your best friend as compared to your acquaintance or let’s say your girl friend.

    Facebook, as you rightly mention ignores this. My “Friends list” on FB has quite a number of my relatives who are sometimes pleasantly surprised with the stuff that I post. But then there are other times when I refrain from posting a semi-controversial picture or a mildly pun intended provocative comment (look I am being squeamish here!). Google Plus solves this problem beautifully by segregating friends from families. It’s baffling as to why couldn’t FB do this by tweaking their UI a bit. Even a clumsy check box which said, “Exclude” would have helped me remove the people who I didn’t want to see my status update. But I guess FB does not want us to do that.

    +1 to your post Andreas. Good one.

    • There’s something narcissistic about status updates. They play into our voyeurism, nosiness, and curiosity. They allow the socially awkward to sound cool.

      Evidently, people enjoy knowing that one is having a pedicure or that their Yorkie needs its nails trimmed.

      FB and the like contribute to the shallowness we see in so many people these days.

    • @Cheri:

      This is a generalizing caricature of status updates, albeit one frequently put forth by those who harbor an aversion to social networks and want to pile on in order to present a stronger case against them.

      Just because many people use status updates to announce what they’re having for dinner doesn’t mean that all people use them for that. It’s like inveighing against the Internet because it’s all porn.

      I, for one, post tweets and updates with some frequency, and I resent being lumped in with the small talk segment among social network users. Status updates are being used in all sorts of ways, e.g., to spark revolutions in the Middle East. Simply picking out an unflattering one pars pro toto is pretty shallow in itself.

      And anytime I come across a “these days” argument, I’d like to know, compared to when? Just because those who prefer to communicate in shallow ways now have public forums to do so doesn’t mean that there’s more shallowness around. Small talk is small talk. It’s been around forever.

  6. Hi Andreas,

    To both your post and Abhishek’s comment:

    As we all agree that we are experimenting with Google + and its too early to draw conclusions, however, one can easily bet that Google+ is here to stay.

    I would like to point out few things which worked for FB and in a way Google has only (in parts) graduated the users of FB to a more customized experience.

    Firstly, it would be unfair to assume that the concept of ‘Circles’ might not have crossed Mark’s mind a few dozen times in course of deciding FB’s future, which I believe might be a every-waking-hour obsession with him.

    What he has been betting against and succeeded so far was that people (at large) are willing to share (peep into or let peep in) their lives with known strangers. Social networks work because of a small amount people who actively bring in the content and a larger base of people who passively consume it.

    Google has scored with its single mindedness of pushing the concept of circles forward, but how last that advantage will last is anybody’s guess.

    FB has already proved that it’s not all back and white when it comes to sharing and relating. And any thing that lasts as a concept inherently needs to be passive in nature, a habit that one gets but didn’t really had to work towards.

    As Terry Pratchett rightly said – the curse my friend is that you shall live in interesting times.


    • Interesting proposition, Alok, that “Social networks work because of a small amount people who actively bring in the content and a larger base of people who passively consume it.”

      I agree that this has been the FB formula. But I don’t think it is the future. Isn’t WordPress (for example) infinitely better suited for that purpose? For me, it certainly seems so, which is why I share public stuff here (and only occasionally cross-post it to Facebook. My hesitiation to do so is in itself interesting, which is another matter for another time.)

      So that brings us back to the social network of the future: Its purpose, it seems to me, is the opposite of your proposition:

      To make more people share more actively but with fewer (and different) people in each instant.

      Why do I say that? Because that’s what Homo Sapiens has done for about 100,000 years. Watch any good soap opera. I whisper A to x but not to y, and x whispers B to z, all while (if a politician) publicly avowing C to everybody at large.

      Now we have circles for that.

    • Few more propositions, (of course with their own fallacies):

      1. When it comes to broadcasting to all – posting a well written blog is very different from posting random stuff in a place where people are already hanging around to consume anything random. I think the mutual comfort is because both the poster and the reader are not taking it too seriously. On the other hand, for a successful blog/website I will have to consistently work hard to create a certain fan base and they will have to take the effort to visit me regularly.

      Like we take the trouble of coming to your blog because you are a distinguished writer who makes the effort of clicking on the notification mail or landing on your latest post in a new window to write comment worth it.

      However, there are very few like you and social networks are not about this alone. As you might have already seen it is full of a lot more frivolous and mindless exchange. And no I am not being cynical about this, as it has been randomly thoughtful too sometimes.

      2. Coming to your example of soap-operas – point taken – and people on FB still do that but by sending around personal messages or by personally chatting – and if they are a blog owner like you, they create a sperate profile on FB to do just that. However, we agree that Google has made it a tad easier.

      But now I would take a step back and would like to point your attention to the television set. So in the context, the soap operas are only the content, while the medium – television which is one of the most passive way of filling in hours, has because of its very nature kept Homo Sapiens glued to it for so long. Yes we spend more time on the web now, but have we become more conscious of what we do and why we do it..? I doubt.

      At large, I do believe that the whole world is passive. Very few are conscious and care of what they share and with whom. At the beginning they might create numerous circles, but then I doubt even 20% of them will maintain them after the first 6 months. My instinct is if they still are on Google+ they will continue using the default – All circle.

      By the way, would be interesting to know why you hesitate cross-selling your posts on your FB wall.

    • “Social networks work because of a small amount people who actively bring in the content and a larger base of people who passively consume it.”

      This does not seem to be a unique feature of social networks. Isn’t this true for newspapers as well? For The Economist?

  7. One inevitable but interesting thing to note in this discussion:

    It has already fragmented into several different threads: one on Google+, one on Facebook, one here, and one under a different blog.

  8. I agree with you that Google+ is a big step forward in social networking. But, in some significant ways, that isn’t the same thing as a big step forward for society. In a world facing crushing problems, we need information technologies that facilitate innovation and the generation of new ideas or, as Matt Ridley puts it, that help ideas have sex. In a McLuhanesque sense, a new technology creates a new environment. My fear is that, everything considered, the environment created by Google+ encourages protected sex over unprotected sex and, as a result, is less likely to produce new offspring. In a world that desperately needs innovation, this is not a positive development.

    For a fuller statement,

    • A fascinating expansion of the topic, Gary.

      I always get cautious, however, when somebody “deduces” from ‘what the world needs’ to the value of any particular thing. Not everything must address what the world needs. Was the iPhone what the world needs? (Did it end war? Climate change? etc?)

      Now, I love — loooove — idea sex. Really. I’m pro-orgy, intellectually speaking. Since you brought up the metaphor, though, you must extend it. Sometimes the orgy creates a cesspool and can make you ill.

      Anyway, from my brief time on Google+ I would say, in this context, that it provides the ideal way for you to choose:
      – whether to go to the orgy room, or
      – whether to go to the monogamy or intimacy room for a while to take a break.
      Isn’t it nice to have that choice?

      Also, ideas can have sex in a small, intimate setting. I would argue that’s the best place for them to procreate — when people feel safe. How fertile have orgiasts been in world history?

      Anyway, you see that I’m clearly having fun with your line of thinking. Thanks!!

  9. “The truth is that I’ve long been too busy doing anything to check Facebook.”
    ~ Andreas Kluth

    Based on your own admission that you don’t use Facebook on a frequent basis, it’s hard to reconcile your conclusions about Google+. Social media is at best a highly superficial exercise in building a network of potentially useful connections. Among people I know in person, most of my contemporaries are ranked high among the computer illiterati, which has required me to look elsewhere for connections among those who share some of my own interests.

    I would take issue with your thesis that Google+ Circles is a crucial innovation. Facebook Lists allows you to categorize friends and connections in an equivalent manner, with comparable functionality in sifting and sorting shared interests and activities. What has turned out to be fun is to discover an occasional opportunity to meet a Facebook connection in person. Doubtless the same will happen with Google+.

    • You’re right about Facebook Lists, William. But that feature came late, has changed often, is hard to find and confusing to most users. Discreteness/discreetness was not built into Facebook from the start (the opposite is the case) so Mark has had to patch it onto FB piecemeal in response to the latest privacy crisis.

  10. A problem with Google’s circle concept is that it puts the future of one’s relationships with one’s nearest and dearest into Google’s power. What if Google should arbitrarily abandon or change the circle concept, so that one day when one opens one’s Google + page, personal information intended only for a group within a certain circle is there for everyone to see?

    One can argue that Google’s doing this would be scoring an own goal. However, organisations have been known to score own goals. One should therefore take nothing for granted.

    Whether using Facebook, Google +, or any other social network, one should therefore be as self-protectively vigilant as one is when walking alone through a skid-row alley at midnight.

    • That is a general problem with all online services today: how do we know (especially if we entrust data to the service) that the provider will
      a) be around in future at all
      b) remain ethical and protect our data as we were led to expect
      c) return our data to us if we ask for it (to switch to another service, say)

      But Google (“don’t be evil” and all that), as a large brand with a reputation to protect, is relatively easier to trust than some small upstart.
      The skid-row alley test is always a good idea.

  11. i count at least five new “blog friends” commenting… is this due to your new google + status 😉

    BTW, i just googled “google+”, thanks for keeping me informed.

  12. sorry, non-sequiter that has been haunting me since yesterday… brought to me from the information highway

    the last tweet from the lunatic in oslo “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100 000 who have only interests”.

    for some odd reason i thought someone from the blog roll might have blogged about the whole tragic senseless horror show.

    • How can we comment on madness? It’s a terrible thing, young people gunned down, all that potential destroyed. The killer is comparable to Timothy McVeigh and the nut in Tucson. The awful fact is that these things will keep on happening, because we live in democratic countries. We have created certain areas, like airports, where the normal freedoms don’t prevail. Do we want the TSA expanded to youth camps, streets in governmental centers, and subway systems?

  13. The only thing stopping me from sharing on G+ is that it doesn’t have bcc functionality. I want to share the “naked baby pictures” but I do not want my mother in law to read the comments from my best friend. I also don’t want my mother in law to see that i’ve shared this with my best friend. The only way to do that now on G+ is to share it in two different posts for the different circles…

  14. I wrote (and passed) intemperate notes in Jr. High. Sometimes they fell into the wrong hands. Facebook gave me a few good laughs at my own cheap self; and now Google+? Plus what?

    Plus whatever human folly I choose to bring to it.

    Mr. C. — Reunion coming up? So, take my strong advice: Get out there and dance…on the floor…in the round.

  15. Don’t forget that the unstated real purpose of Facebook is not to let its users interact with their social group(s) but to keep its users interacting with Facebook…

    Whether the users get any tangible or intangible benefit out of it is secondary. And yes some users do get some real benefits. For others it is a (deliberately) addictive time-suck.

  16. I don’t see how inventing circles is some great social insight. Everyone complained that it’s separate Facebook friends from frienemies. So grouping your friends is the obvious-dumb-engineer solution. I’m tentatively in favour of it, because I am a dumb engineer, but only time will tell if it actually works.

    I’m not trying to put Google down here, they made a concious decision to do the obvious-dumb thing rather than try some other scheme. And the have shown steel by making circles non-optional. Still it looks like a win for engineers’ gut instinct, hopefully salted with a little graph theory.

  17. I tried Google+ and all I can say is that it is a not ready for prime time yet. At first everything came up in German, probably because I live in Austria. After some Googling around, I figured out how to change the language settings. Now I have some of it in English and some in German.

    Most software developers are lazy and only look at your IP address (I live in Austria). Why they do not look at the actual language settings on your computer I do not know. I will not use Google+ in its current version.

    Now, I have a different problem, WordPress has lost my account, so I am leaving this comment as a Guest! So much for easy to use software.

  18. I’m in Austria, too. I cannot replicate your problem. If I set Google to English, all Google products are English. If I set it to Google Österreich, everything is in German. Perhaps your browser cache got confused. I don’t think your issue is Google+ specific.

  19. Google plus i found boring after using it for a couple of months, Facebook, on the other hand is a lot more human. Both in its imperfection and diversity, I also walk down the street expecting all sort of nuts to cross my path. For those of you looking for homogeinity join a Country Club or retirement community.

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