Several days into using Google+ myself, I can say for certain that whatever the long-term impact of the suite of services will be, it is in a meaningful way a complete success. What it’s successful at is something I’m still trying to articulate, but a key aspect of it is that it just feels different. This is not for nothing. I’ve been using the Web regularly for more than 15 years now, which in Internet time is several kinds of forever.

Steven Johnson, in his (1997!) book Interface Culture – still massively relevant today – wrote that:

Conceptual turbulence – the sense of the world accelerating around you, pulling you in a thousand directions at once – is a deeply Modern tradition, with roots that go back hundreds of years. What differentiates our own historical moment is that a symbolic form has arisen designed precisely to counteract that tendency, to battle fragmentation and overload with synthesis and sense-making. The interface is a way of seeing the whole. Or, at the very least, a way of seeing its shadow, illuminated by the bright phosphor of the screen.

What Google+ has succeeded in doing is introducing a new set of shadows, with a different kind of synthesis and sense-making.

danah boyd, who’s been researching mediated sociability for almost as long as anyone, noted on Google+,

I don’t know why it entertains me to no end to surf people on a new SNS. Serious 2003 flashbacks happening here…

I concur entirely, and I know exactly why it entertains me. When done well, a new SNS is a new kind of experience – a new way of looking at other people, your connections to them, and what your social world looks like in a way that just isn’t handled particularly conceptually well in our own minds. The interface determines how we see this, and the interfaces of different SNS have done a great deal to shape their cultures. The ability to see who looked at your profile on Friendster made it addictively voyeuristic, and the restrictions on who you could see (only within three degrees) made expanding your network part of the fun. Facebook’s early walled-garden safe space made it very much a college dorm hangout, and as its interface has evolved away from its initial audience, the interface (and accompanying changes in News Feed content) have mirrored the closed-off direction of dialogue in that space.

Jim Fallows in a post on his early positive impressions of Google+ really nails the dynamics of the above transition:

The reason I hate and mistrust Facebook is its constant record of changing the privacy terms, not saying it’s done so until it’s caught, and always setting the default in the least private and most advertiser-exploitable way.

He goes on to say,

(Yes, I realize I do not exemplify FB’s ideal demographic.)

He wasn’t, at first, but it’s exactly in pursuit of Jim’s demographic – that is to say, not college students, where Facebook already had as close to 100% market share as possible, but rather post-college-age audiences with actual incomes – that Facebook has implemented the “most advertiser-exploitable” interface changes.

How would I describe the interface of Google+ so far, then? In a word: pleasant. After getting over the “half a dozen friends” hump, there’s always plenty going on, and plenty to do, but there’s very little in the way of insistence. The interface is of course very Googley – mostly white background, black sans serif for content, blue for clickable links. Everything happens very smoothly, for which Andy Herzfeld has been getting a lot of (deserved) credit. And while it’s not at all clear what it will be or do, in the long run, for now, Google+ just works – and that’s not nothing.

One of the most fascinating parts about Google+ so far, from my perspective (i.e., outside looking in, not having an invite m’self, yet) is the absolute flood of commentary on the project. Following on my very early reads-and-reactions post, there’s been more discussion and commentary, just within my immediate network, than I can properly summarize. A few of the keener insights:

  • Paul Jones asks “Do Keynes’ Animal Spirits http://tinyurl.com/3l6yjon explain the jump onto G+ ?” and offers that “Skype sold at just the right time. G+ Hangout woulda caused Skype to hang it up. Hangout on lappy is very nice”
  • Zeynep Tufekci offers a key insight into the opportunity space filled by Google+ in noting “Let me clarify re:Google+. I know other such platforms exist but there is platform fatigue. Many already use gmail so it is an opportunity.”
  • Jillian York provides a comparison of community standards between Google+ and Facebook.
  • Fred Stutzman has been providing some invaluable criticism on Twitter, including noting that Google+ has “No meaningful support for pseudonymity. If you choose a pseudonym, Google updates all other services with it.” and “Can’t use without creating a public profile. Even Facebook allows you to opt out of a public profile.” Fred also delves in greater depth to the question of “What problem does Google+ solve,” and I’d like to explore that at greater length, here.
Fred offers that “Google’s definition of success, I believe, is the creation of a technology that enables the enumeration and active maintenance of each user’s weighted social network going forward,” and I agree. Seen in this light, I’d argue that Google+ is, rather than a totally new thing, merely an evolution (albeit a large leap in punctuated equilibrium) of Google’s long-term move away from being a search engine and toward being a holistic information manager. gMail was a huge step in that evolution, and with each addition of services like Calendar and Maps, Google has expanded its reach across our informational lives.
Key in this evolution has also been an understanding that any effective social software does not replace “real” life or face-to-face interaction but rather helps facilitate it. Each incremental piece of the Googlesphere has worked toward these ends, and Google+ seems positioned to continue this movement toward holistic management of social information.
Fred further makes the distinction between social networks based on social objects, latent value and those that are ego-driven, placing Google+ in the latter category. I don’t think that that’s wrong, but given the range of uses where users currently  find their value in the Googlesphere, I’d argue that Google+ will variously work as a social network based on social objects, latent value and ego-centricity for different users or for the same user at different times.
This is the opportunity of the Circles feature and implementation based on an understanding of multiply existant social networks. There do seem to be hiccups in implementing the privacy/publicity aspects of Circles and Google Profile pages, which Fred, Zeynep and Jackson Fox have been discussing. And Fred points to an excellent Farhad Manjoo piece that’s highly skeptical of the whole endeavor, but ends with this clunker: “Most people are OK with one giant, chaotic circle, and spending a lot of time worrying about the consequences of sharing your stuff there is totally square.” I don’t think that’s right, and it’s a huge overgeneralization from a position of privilege that allows anyone to say so.
But it also points to what really distinguishes Google+, which is the criticism at Twitter speed that’s accompanying the (field-test, not available to many yet) rollout. The news cycle has been accelerated, the hype machine amplified, and long-term context removed in so many aspects of contemporary discourse – especially as relates to technology – that actually allowing room for evolution seems like some far-off memory. And yet Facebook would not exist had it not evolved substantially several times since its inception, nor Twitter, nor most of the technology tools that now comprise indispensable elements of our digital lives. Google are smart folks – they knew this, but this is an important enough evolution that they needed to do it in the bright light and heat of a thousand critics blooming every second. And indeed, they have positioned themselves as not just tolerant of such criticism but wanting and needing it to perfect their product.
If this is really true – if Google has developed a promising, half-finished suite of social tools and released them to the unflinching and unsympathetic (well, partially) gaze of the online world’s macroscope, with the explicit goal of harnessing such criticism and engagement to answer real needs and problems – then that will be the truly revolutionary contribution of Google+.

After a lot of buildup and false starts, Google is finally rolling out (well, soft-launching) a social networking something-or-other. Obviously Google is already a serious social hub, but the various attempts at Google-as-SNS haven’t quite caught fire (unless you’re Brazilian). This is clearly worthy of some substantial attention – not just with Google being one of the 700 lb. gorillas of the Web, but as one of the few firms in a position to be able to challenge Facebook’s walled-garden Web from a running start (Google’s own vision for the future of the Web can be discussed later). In the announcement of Google+ they seem to be confronting this head-on:

+You: putting you first, all across Google
That’s the Google+ project so far: Circles, Sparks, Hangouts and mobile. We’re beginning in Field Trial, so you may find some rough edges, and the project is by invitation only. But online sharing needs a serious re-think, so it’s time we got started. There’s just one more thing—really the only thing: You.

You and over a billion others trust Google, and we don’t take this lightly. In fact we’ve focused on the user for over a decade: liberating data, working for an open Internet, and respecting people’s freedom to be who they want to be. We realize, however, that Google+ is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus—on you. That’s why we’re giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data; and more ways to let us know how we’re doing. All across Google.

This direct contrast hits on much of the criticism Facebook has received the last years on choices it has made with privacy and disclosure settings (and indeed that Google itself received for its rollout of Buzz). And Google seems to have taken some of the flak it received to heart – as Fred Stutzman notes very succinctly: “Google Circles: What Google has learned from Goffman.” Liz Heron is a bit more skeptical, noting that “Google being more private than Facebook seems like a hard sell.”

Steven Levy does a deep dive on the development of Google+ (with the totally hilarious US-centric line “aside from capturing massive market shares in Brazil and India, Orkut is now a footnote”… dude, that’s the 2nd and 4th largest countries on Earth!) and Techcrunch give a good bit of background on Google’s management of the rollout, including some insight from one of the project chiefs:

“We believe online sharing is broken. And even awkward,” Gundotra says. “We think connecting with other people is a basic human need. We do it all the time in real life, but our online tools are rigid. They force us into buckets — or into being completely public,” he continues. “Real life sharing is nuanced and rich. It has been hard to get that into software,” is the last thing he says before diving into a demo of Google+.

I tend to agree, and this tracks nicely with much of what Paul Jones has been discussing in his (excellent and fascinating) move into #noemail. Paul notes that,

“…small talk, important small talk, is going on in a lot of different environments. It’s as common as breathing. So common that like breathing, we don’t pay serious attention to it until there’s some serious problem. But that common talk enriches our lives and deepens our engagement with our co-workers and the world.”

Which tracks very nicely with what Gundrota is saying and the critique of those buckets in #noemail.

h a personal standpoint, Google+ is exciting because it seems to more directly track how sociability works, rather than trying to corral it (as has been Facebook’s general movement over the years). From a research standpoint, it also seems to exemplify something I’ve thought for a while – that the Internet as a place is receding to the background, becoming the invisible infrastructure (think habout plumbing – and then think about how much you don’t think about it) of our lives. That is: if Google+ works, it’ll be because it isn’t so much because it’s something shiny and exciting but something simpler and easier.

Update: Further thoughts from The Real Paul Jones on Google+.

Success and Failure

From an excellent Telegraph story on the cratering of the denim trade in China:

In one desolate room, a former factory boss sat on a stool in shame: having lost all of his family’s money, he was too ashamed to return home for the Chinese New Year holiday.

And from a recent episode of Planet Money:

the U.S. system makes it easier for people to start over, and to keep their financial lives going. Our financial system is set up to embrace failure.

I can’t really separate myself from national identity, here – I’m an American through and through, and can neither deny my cultural immersion or a certain degree of chauvinism on this point. I think it’s great that US bankruptcy laws (though less good than they used to be) allow people, by and large, to start again after things fall apart. Indeed, in Silicon Valley failure is often a badge of pride.

So I won’t make a normative judgment on this cultural difference but rather note that I think this is another example of entity versus incremental theories of self in action.To the extent that people can define their professional successes or failures as not self-confirming or -indicting evidence of an essential self but rather as a series of events from which they can learn and improve regardless of outcome, I think that’s a good thing.

Distributed Self-Criticism

Fascinating news from ESPN:

A panel of faculty from The Poynter Institute, which offers training to journalists, will serve as the latest ombudsman for ESPN.

The panel, known as the Poynter Review Project, will review ESPN content across all platforms and offer public comment on ESPN’s efforts in the form of monthly essays and additional timely responses as issues arise, ESPN and Poynter announced Thursday.

The panel also will address fans’ concerns during its 18-month tenure. Commentaries will be posted on ESPN.com, beginning with an introductory column in March.

The institute’s role expands the tradition of ESPN ombudsman, most recently held by television producer Don Ohlmeyer. His term was preceded by Le Anne Schreiber, a former New York Times sports editor-turned-author, and George Solomon, former sports editor of The Washington Post. [emphasis added]

The last part is the key. Poynter has been at the forefront of documenting, criticizing and analyzing online news reportage and dissemination, and however accomplished or ethical those previous ombudspersons have been, they were decidedly old media. This shift to not one person but a panel of experts who are at the top of the profession in its current state is great news for fans and readers.

ESPN clearly recognizes that the future of all its business – sports, journalism, commentary – is online. Its free online broadcasts of the World Cup last summer were the best yet done, and recent acquisition of Michael Wilbon (further gutting the once-great Washington Post sports section) for online columns and chats a further investment in same. Bringing on board an ombudsboard that understands not just sports journalism but the emerging dynamics and ethics of online commentary and interaction is a great step forward for the colossus of sports coverage, and at least a potential step towards regaining the kind of credibility that journalism strives for.

Communications Segmentation

TechCrunch reports on a recent ComScore report highlighting changes in webmail usage:

In introducing his messaging platform last November Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said one of the primary motivations behind Messages product strategy was that teenagers have given up on email, “High school kids don’t use email, they use SMS a lot. People want lighter weight things like SMS and IM to message each other.”

A comScore report on 2010 digital trends reinforces at least part of Zuckerberg’s claim.  It’s inevitable: Innovative social messaging platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well mobile communications continue to dominate our online time, and web email begins its steady decline. Total web email usage was down 8% in the past year (YOY), with a whopping 59% decline in use among people between the ages of 12-17. Cue Matt Drudge -style alarm.

Usage was also down 1% among 18-24 year olds, 18% among 25-35 year olds, 8% among 35-44 year olds and 12% among the 45-54 demographic. Because oldsters are continuing to migrate online in droves, web email use actually saw an uptick in the AARP-eligible sector, with 22% gains among 55-64 year olds and 28% among those 65 and older. Obviously this was not enough to offset the decline in youth usage.

Though the numbers don’t lie, “webmail is dying” is entirely the wrong way to look at it. My dissertation research found similar figures in terms of the pre-eminence of social communications methods: cell phones and texting are the center of young peoples’ (in that case, college students’) social universe, with Facebook messages more popular than email for social communications. Contra Zuck, IM is not used as frequently or centrally in their social communications, and it’s my hunch that for the most part it’s getting pushed out by texting.

But all of this changes in a professional context. Young people still use email for communicating with their parents and, in the context of college, want to only use email (and face-to-face meetings) to communicate with their professors: no cell, texting, IM, Facebook messages. Definitely not. This divide was further explicated in interviews where students described that email was for professors, internships (and bosses there), and campus organizations – mailing lists and the like.

What’s clear is that while webmail and email are, among younger cohorts, losing their social centrality, they are not going away at all. Rather, email is becoming increasingly professionally branded. Old people (e.g., me) still use it (albeit at slightly decreasing rates) for social communications, and the ComScore report shows that the oldest cohorts are actually using it increasingly for those communications. But email has become the central tool for business communications, and as young people enter a workforce that is actually increasingly adopting webmail for professional purposes – notice the flat number among 18-24s and smaller decreases above that – email usage will endure. It just might get left at the office.


Human Freedom

Lost in Friday-news-dump-land among all the election mishegas was this:

Reversing a longstanding policy, the federal government said on Friday that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. The new position could have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.

The new position was declared in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Department of Justice late Friday in a case involving two human genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

“We acknowledge that this conclusion is contrary to the longstanding practice of the Patent and Trademark Office, as well as the practice of the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies that have in the past sought and obtained patents for isolated genomic DNA,” the brief said.

Regardless of whatever happens on Tuesday, this is a huge win for the future of human freedom and well-being. As we further our knowledge of genetics, leading to even greater advances in potential human wellness, those windfalls should not be the property of any individual or corporation, but rather should accrue to humanity in general. This one ruling won’t ensure that, but it reflects a necessary and welcome shift towards a more basically just future in what will be one of the most important industries and areas of development of this century.


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