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In the Right Circle

by Prasad Krishna last modified Aug 23, 2011 07:40 AM
I’ve been on Google Plus for a few weeks now. In the beginning, it felt like showing up early at a much-talked-up party. There was a small scatter of people, poking around, examining the place, making preliminary conversation with the few others they knew. Most of the talk was, unsurprisingly, about Google Plus.

Unlike the crash-bang disaster of Google Buzz, its awkward attempt at social networking that alienated most users by publicly exposing their contact list, and then proceeded from error to error, Google Plus has been a low-key, careful affair.

In the first two weeks, Google calibrated entry, depending on its capacity — letting early adopters and "power users" examine the platform and tell them what’s missing, and what works.

Google Plus mimics the real world, where people interact in clusters, and relate outwards in concentric circles of trust, rather than Facebook’s megaphone model. You drag and drop people into different circles, and can either mark individual posts to specific circles and combinations (‘family’ ‘college buddies’, ‘artsy types’), or make them public to everyone. You can catch up on these circles separately, and toggle between your many worlds, or choose to read the great river of updates on your “public" stream. Google Plus shows you a civilised way of arranging your acquaintances, avoiding that playground-level, plaintive, Facebook question: "why am I in your limited profile?"

In concept, Facebook also lets you slice your social world with friend lists, but it’s a tedious labour that few have undertaken. Design is everything — and Facebook was clearly not built for such fine-grained customisation, because everything about its default settings pointed the other way. In fact, its young CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed to think an attachment to privacy was some faintly embarrassing, vestigial trait — the sooner we accept its obsolescence, the better.

Facebook has a remarkably flat view of friendship. If your Facebook friends are too wide and various, it can make you clam up, conscious of what a few people might think. Most people, as social media scholar danah boyd has noted, tend to focus on a part of their network, mentally blocking out the rest.

"I’d like to have separate interactions with my mother, my friends, my students and my university colleagues without bombarding my colleagues with my vacation pictures or boring my mother with research chatter," says Mallesh Pai, an academic who works on the economics of the internet. "Plus actually lets me do that."

Facebook works with the fiction that there is a single self you present to the world – while, in fact, you are a posse of selves. You might be the naïve seeker in some contexts, the voice of authority in others. In the real world, you read others by their voice and expression, factor in their situations, and modulate your own speech accordingly. But in Facebookland, you talk at an invisible audience. The problem of “collapsed contexts”, and the anxiety of audience is Facebook’s most obvious flaw, and Google Plus has focused squarely on that aspect. It obviously works best for those who are acutely aware of social role-play and judgment. Many people may claim not to care about finessing their personalities to different audiences, or see the point of migrating to a new platform —but once you wrap your head around the rich, real-world aspect of Google Plus, it’s hard to imagine why you’d want to stay on Facebook.

But it’s not just Facebook that Plus directly takes on — Twitter could also take a direct hit. The “following” circle lets you add people you don’t know personally, and see all their public posts. “Sometimes, it’s weird to realise you’re being followed by so many people you don’t know, but like on Twitter, it seems like too much effort to edit the list. Thankfully, there aren’t any spambots on Plus yet,” says Pranesh Prakash, a lawyer and policy advocate at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. There’s no arbitrary 140-character limit, and there are coherent threads of conversation — in fact, the level of visible engagement on Plus makes Twitter look like “a boring RSS reader”, as someone observed.

Apart from the Facebook and Twitter-type uses, Google Plus comes with a standout feature that’s all its own: Hangouts, spontaneous video chatting with up to 10 people. You start a hangout, and anyone may drop in to talk for a bit. “It’s trying to replicate the sort of gathering you have in a coffee shop, just drop in and chat about the news or whatever,” says Pai. It’s so obviously useful that Dell is reportedly considering dropping traditional customer service calls and choosing to hang out with Google instead. Yes, Facebook has recently teamed up with Skype in a self-declared "awesome" move — but Skype still makes you pay for multi-way video conferencing, and doesn’t offer the serendipitous pleasures of Hangout yet.

Then there is Sparks, Google Plus’s attempt to push the right content at you – you pick from a variety of interests, and Google supplies a steady scroll of interesting links. Given how much info the company has on people, Sparks could become eerily spot-on.

In fact, the chief problem with Google Plus may be that it tries to cram in too much, leaving users overwhelmed. The bewildering array of buttons and options may put off some, and right now, it’s difficult to control the signal-to-noise ratio. “It’s definitely not as over-complicated as Google Wave, which nobody could really figure out” says Pai. “And honestly, it would be difficult to imagine the kind of functionality that Plus provides being delivered in any other way.” Then there are some who are sceptical of Circles — saying that greater granularity isn’t going to take away the dilemmas of talking to a group. They predict that once the novelty wears off and Google Plus expands, you’ll be struggling to edit and divide your circles, and to pitch yourself right.

So will Google Plus lure 750 million-plus Facebook and Twitter users away? "Don’t underestimate Facebook’s network benefits," says Prakash. “When I first went online in 1996, the first thing to do was to create an email address. Now the first thing that people do to mark an online entry is to create a Facebook account”.

Besides, Google may not want to supplant Facebook as much as master an arena it has so far sucked at – the social world. As Pranesh Prakash says, “it’s not about competition with Facebook, as much as trying to improve Google’s own services, bring them together into a seamless whole and better understand its users.” Making social life machine-readable would obviously be the next big jackpot for Google, and it appears determined to invest the time, resources and effort to getting it exactly right. As Shimrit Ben-Yair, product manager of the social graph at Google told Wired magazine’s Stephen Levy, Google Plus could be a revolutionary service if it hits the sweet spot between Facebook oversharing and Twitter undersharing.

Besides, most would agree that a spot of vigorous competition would be good for Facebook, which has played fast and loose with privacy policy — changing its defaults, and then reacting to the outcry that follows. "For too long, it was the only game in town. Facebook has innovated more in the three weeks that Plus has been around, than in a lon time," says Pai.

So far, Google Plus has been extra-solicitous of privacy, and adjusted on the fly to field testers’ feedback. It has jumped to attend to mistakes – like responding to complaints that a user’s gender should not be publicly available. When someone pointed out that even limited posts could be reshared by others, that technical hole was immediately plugged. "It’s very heartening to see that they’ve learnt from the mistakes of Facebook and Buzz," says Prakash. Unlike Facebook’s possessiveness about your information and pictures, Google’s Data Liberation policy is explicitly committed to letting you erase all personal traces whenever you want, and free yourself from any product.

But as Prakash cautions, "Google may not have a coherent view of privacy across all its products — for all Google Plus’s delicacy and tact, Google Street View may have different ideas about what is acceptable." There are many who find it unnerving that a revenue-driven, publicly traded company should be the master switch of our information economy. Given Google’s girth and dominance, competitors can’t realistically wrest attention away, after a certain point.

"Google is bigger because it’s better and better because it’s bigger", writes Siva Vaidyanathan in The Googlization of Everything. Google Plus, then, marks another large advance in the company’s stated mission to organise the world’s information. Even Pai admits that “if a new mail application came along, it would have to offer so much more than Google for me to consider shifting – given how Gmail does everything, syncs my calendar, knows my friends." But then again, he says, “Let’s judge Google not on what we think it is, but what it does. Everything that’s too big in a bad way, even those considered invincible, gets stopped eventually. Right now, I’m reading about Murdoch’s undoing with great glee – a few weeks back, who would have imagined that?" 

This article by Amulya Gopalakrishnan was published in the Indian Express on July 24, 2011. The original story can be read here

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