Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Google+ goes Social: Why Should You Care?

Wired's Steven Levy has a long, but very insightful article, Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social, describing the company's recent rollout of Google+ and the company's long term plans to transform itself and its products in light of Facebook's success. This may well be great for Google's bottom line, but bad for humanity. Here's why.

Without going too deeply into the details of the new product vision (you'll have to read the article for that), there are two main components to Google+. The stream looks a lot like a Facebook feed: a stream of social information from friends and others -- but with a significant tweak. Google thinks they have solved the privacy issue by allowing you to easily create different 'Circles' of friends and, hence, share different information with different people. The second element, Sparks, is a stream of information on topics of interest to the user. But, unlike the results of the standard Google search, the Sparks search algorithms have been tweaked to deliver content that is fresh, visual and viral. In other words, there is a designed synergy: the Sparks stream brings things to your attention that you will want to share with one or more of your Circles.
Overall, the stream and Sparks are indications of how the need to respond to the social challenge has already changed Google’s philosophy. It’s almost as if the Emerald Sea team is creating an anti-Google. Before starting the company in 1998, Page and Brin had tried to sell their technology to portals like Excite and Yahoo, whose execs refused because the Google search engine was deemed too effective: It would fulfill a users’ requests and then briskly send them on their way, taking their lucrative eyeballs with them. Google insisted that search quality trumped stickiness, and built a business on the premise that users were best served by getting results that sent them off to preferred destinations.

But with these streams, Google is changing direction. Right now, the content from Sparks and the social stream is not intermingled, but it’s reasonable to assume that before long, the company will use its algorithmic powers to produce a single flow that skillfully mixes those apples and oranges. Google has already pulled off a much more complicated version of that trick with Universal Search, which includes web pages, images, videos, books, Tweets, news items and other formats among its results. And that’s only the beginning. With its deep resources of information about its users, Google is capable of delivering a comprehensive collection of information, tailored exactly to one’s needs and interests. “It’s the long-term vision that we have for that newsfeed, that stream,” Gundotra says. “We think long-term, four to five years from now, the system should be putting items in there not just from your friends, but things that Google knows you should be seeing.”
This mother of all streams would be the equivalent of an intravenous feed of information, with inclusion of all the vital content from our social graph and the world at large (Google calls this the “interest graph”). It would scroll forever, and everything would be relevant. If Google’s original goal was to expeditiously dispatch us elsewhere, with this near-clairvoyant stream, Google could turn us into search potatoes who never leave.

So, Google is changing its business model. Why should we care? To appreciate the significance of this, we need to take a short trip into the world of evolutionary anthropology. Conventional wisdom over the past 160 years in the cognitive and neurosciences has assumed that brains evolved to process factual information about the world. Over the past decade, that view has largely been displaced by the social brain hypothesis. Crudely put, the traditional view held that human information processing capabilities (our brain and related language skills) evolved in relation to adaptive pressures that favored the sharing of technical information and the ability to socialize came as an added benefit. The social brain hypothesis turns this explanation on its head: the selective adaptation was sociability -- specifically the ability to use language in order to bond in groups larger than than those of other primates which bond by touch through sequential grooming. According to the social brain hypothesis, the ability to share technical information is an extra bonus, not the primary purpose of language. This model corresponds much better with how people actually act: we spend 3-4 times as much of our day using language to socialize (How are you?) as we do using it to exchange technical information (That will be $29.95, please.)

In short, Google is recognizing that the primary focus of human communication is social rather than technical and adapting their product to take that into account. This could well be a good move for Google's bottom line, but it is a potentially bad development for humanity. We are facing a set of complex and interconnected challenges -- climate change, population growth, biodiversity loss, improperly regulated economies, new diseases, increasing inequalities in the distribution of income, the end of cheap energy supplies, the list goes on and on -- that require innovative thought and action to successfully address. And pretty much everyone who studies the process of innovation (see, for example, the clip below), argue that innovations come from places that allow ideas to have sex -- that is to interact with one another in ways that will generate something new.

In sum, innovation typically depends on connecting ideas that weren't previously seen as related to each other. The new Google framework, however, is designed to do the exact opposite -- to take all the information and knowledge that they have about you as an individual and deliver to you only those things they think will be of interest. I don't want to be a Luddite here. People are creative and will find new and interesting ways to use Google's social turn to their advantage.

But, everything considered, this development seems to negatively impact the likelihood that ideas will have sex in any individuals head in several ways. First, it turns an efficient search engine into another time suck. Second, while nominally facilitating connectivity (a good thing) it will actually tend to limit the breadth of information that the person receives and the types of connections their mind makes. Think, for example, of the difference between a) receiving a newspaper, scanning all the headlines and deciding to read something totally unexpected and b) receiving a feed limited to specific topics that, as a result, doesn't bring you the article in an area outside your interest. Third, it will take development dollars away from Google's previous focus -- technical search algorithms -- and, potentially, limit future developments in that area.

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


  1. As someone who actually uses Google+, I consider Sparks to be rather secondary and not really even that compelling. It's quite easy to use Google+ and not really even engage it. If I had to pick one feature that doesn't make it out of beta, Sparks would be it. The big story about Google+ is Circles, not Sparks or even the Stream.

  2. I agree that the obvious marketing advantage of Google+ relative to other products currently available is the Circle. That's the one reason I can see that would lead people to switch in sufficient numbers to make the whole product suite successful. But, it does seem to be part of a grander strategy aimed at moving from a pull model to a push model of information delivery (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push-pull_strategy ). Stay tuned as I'm in the middle of providing an example illustrating the consequences.