What Google+ gets right

Over the last week or so I’ve been explor­ing Google’s new social net­work­ing sys­tem, Google+ or, as it is affec­tion­ate­ly known, g+. At first glance it seems like a direct clone of Face­book with some fan­cy user inter­face improve­ments for orga­niz­ing your «cir­cles» of con­tacts. There are also some nice usabil­i­ty improve­ments, like the abil­i­ty to edit a com­ment after it has been post­ed. Any­one who has ever hit the sub­mit but­ton with a typo still in their mes­sage — ie any­one — should appre­ci­ate the val­ue in that.

One thing caught my atten­tion, and it’s some­thing that Google has­n’t pub­li­cized as a fea­ture or util­i­ty, but it has earned them some points with me. My favorite thing about g+ is that there’s no such thing as a «pri­vate mes­sage» or «direct mes­sage». If you want to send some­one a mes­sage, you send an email.

It makes sense: Google is already high­ly invest­ed in email, so why would­n’t they lever­age one of their core strengths? Nev­er­the­less, it shows a will­ing­ness to be a part of the Inter­net ecol­o­gy in a way that Twit­ter and Face­book and LinkedIn refuse to.

What do I mean by the annoy­ing­ly buzz­wordy jar­gon Inter­net ecol­o­gy? Just that there is a sys­tem already in place that peo­ple are already tak­ing advan­tage of that does a cer­tain job, does it well, and does­n’t con­tain a sin­gle point of fail­ure because it relies on the rest of the sys­tem to work. Some sites, espe­cial­ly social media sites, want to con­trol the entire expe­ri­ence (so that they can serve up more ads) and rein­vent the wheel with no addi­tion­al or with incon­se­quen­tial benefit.

The prob­lem with iso­lat­ing users from, and there­by not tak­ing advan­tage of, that exist­ing ecol­o­gy (for lack of a bet­ter word) is that it takes away the advan­tages of using the Inter­net; it shrinks the World Wide Web down to a one-com­pa­ny-wide web. That one com­pa­ny is then a sin­gle point of fail­ure. When Twit­ter goes down,  no one in the world can tweet. To stretch the ecol­o­gy metaphor, Twit­ter and Face­book have built tree­hous­es in indi­vid­ual trees, they have set up elab­o­rate net­works of strings and tin cans so that the peo­ple in the tree­house can talk to one anoth­er. And you have to be part of their club to play.

By con­trast, email is like real tele­phones inside peo­ple’s real hous­es. Yes, you have to be a mem­ber of some­one’s club. In the case of email the «club» is your Inter­net ser­vice provider, school, employ­er, or a web-based email account. A few indus­tri­ous indi­vid­u­als run their own servers, too. In the house/phone anal­o­gy, you have to have ser­vice from a phone com­pa­ny, whether it’s a cel­lu­lar com­pa­ny like AT&T or Ver­i­zon or a local com­pa­ny. The dif­fer­ence is not that indi­vid­u­als are depen­dent on ser­vice providers; the dif­fer­ence is that these ser­vice providers pro­vide access to the larg­er net­work. An AT&T cus­tomer can call a Ver­i­zon cus­tomer on the phone, a per­son with a land­line can call a per­son with a cell­phone, and some­one with a gmail account can send email to their friend with a hot­mail account, or to some­one with email through their employer.

I have noth­ing against the tree­hous­es and their string-and-can sys­tems. It’s fun to play in the tree­house. Some­times it’s even use­ful to com­mu­ni­cate through some­thing like Face­book where you don’t have to give out your email address. You can play in the tree­house with­out telling any­one where you live.

But back to my ear­li­er point about sin­gle points of fail­ure, when some­one’s mom says it’s time for din­ner, every­one in that tree­house has to go home and no one can talk through the string-and-tin-can phones. So the more impor­tant social media becomes—and it’s become very impor­tant not just for fun but for com­merce, cus­tomer ser­vice, sales lead gen­er­a­tion and many oth­er «grown-up» activities—the more it should­n’t be in one per­son­’s treehouse.

This is not a social­ist argu­ment that com­pa­nies should­n’t be prof­it­ing from things that are impor­tant. To the con­trary, social media com­pa­nies should prof­it because social media are impor­tant. They do not, how­ev­er, do us or ulti­mate­ly them­selves any favors by try­ing to be the only tree­house in the world.

Social media com­pa­nies, for the most part, refuse to be part of the big­ger world. Some­one on Twit­ter can’t «fol­low» their friends on Face­book with­out get­ting a Face­book account too. There are some bridges avail­able, but you still need accounts on both sys­tems. This is exact­ly like Ver­i­zon telling you your friends with  AT&T phones can’t call you unless they get a Ver­i­zon phone too. If that were the case, it would be worse for every­one, and the val­ue the phone com­pa­nies would be offer­ing would be less so ulti­mate­ly I think their prof­its would be less. As you grow up, it’s not enough to only talk to peo­ple in your treehouse.

I can see why social media com­pa­nies offer to rein­vent the wheel. It’s more than just serv­ing up more pages with adver­tise­ments; it’s about con­trol and attract­ing more users. If peo­ple get used to send­ing mes­sages to one anoth­er via Face­book, then they will encour­age oth­ers to get on Face­book so that they can send mes­sages. In the short term, it makes sense. In the long term, it’s just an attempt to keep a bunch of grownups in the tree­house. It’s bad for the users and ulti­mate­ly it’s bad for the social media companies.

There is a move­ment afoot to cre­ate social net­works that talk to oth­er social net­works. Soft­ware projects like Friendi­ka and Dias­po­ra offer a Face­book-like expe­ri­ence where mem­bers can talk and share with peo­ple on oth­er net­works. Prob­a­bly the most mature of these is, which has more in com­mon with Twit­ter. My own microblog­ging site,, runs on the soft­ware. I am the only mem­ber of that site but I sub­scribe to peo­ple on dozens of oth­er sites, and oth­er peo­ple sub­scribe to me. There’s no one else in my tree­house, but I have a cell­phone up here and I don’t need any­one to join my club in order to com­mu­ni­cate with them.

Back to Google+. Google has­n’t done any­thing like the kind of fed­er­a­tion that is built on. It’s still large­ly a tree­house. But it is a step in the right direc­tion for two rea­sons. As men­tioned before, they haven’t rein­vent­ed the wheel for pri­vate mes­sag­ing. It’s just email. I’m sure they’d love it if every­one had gmail accounts, but Google has so far always been hap­py being a big email provider in the big­ger world of email. This choice with g+ says that even if they build a tree­house, they won’t con­fis­cate our cell­phones on the way in.

The oth­er thing g+ does that makes it a step in the right direc­tion? You can put peo­ple who aren’t on g+ in your cir­cles, so long as you have an email address for them. It’s far short of being able to sub­scribe to and be sub­scribed to by peo­ple on oth­er sites, but if you want to share your cat pic­tures with a bunch of peo­ple includ­ing peo­ple that aren’t on g+, no prob­lem. You can post to that cir­cle and those peo­ple will receive an email.

On the one hand, yes, it increas­es the vis­i­bil­i­ty and the poten­tial intru­sive­ness of g+. No doubt soon some peo­ple will become nui­sances, send­ing their every notice about tooth­brush­ing and rid­ing the bus out to count­less peo­ple by email, but I don’t see that as a sys­temic prob­lem any more than that one rel­a­tive who for­wards chain mail and stu­pid jokes to every­one in their address book. That one per­son­’s behav­ior does­n’t mean that email is to blame.

The big­ger pic­ture is that g+ opens social media beyond the scope of the tree­house. Google knows that it’s part of a larg­er sys­tem and rather than fight­ing the sys­tem by keep­ing every­one in their tree­house, they are work­ing with the sys­tem, and mak­ing their tree­house more inviting.

g+ still has its rough edges, and I look for­ward to the day when they open the sys­tem even fur­ther. They may not ever do so, but I hope they will. It is cur­rent­ly pos­si­ble to sub­scribe to a g+ user’s pub­lic stream from a site, but that won’t be very use­ful until it’s pos­si­ble for a g+ user to include a account in their cir­cles. Google may nev­er decide to do that.

But Google has done a good thing by tak­ing this step in the right direc­tion. If they don’t take the next step, rest assured some­one will. Because in the end, peo­ple want to be out in the world, not stuck in some­one else’s treehouse.

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