Google Launches Revamped Google Plus Around Interests, Streams

This deserves more than a brief analysis, but it is such an interesting development I feel compelled to comment on it now. If I can find time, I hope to return to it in more depth later when I’ve had a chance to think more carefully about it, and to play with the system some more. The interesting news is that, while there is still a binding role that links disparate Google services together, Google Plus’s focus is now Communities (basically, what we call groups on the Landing) and Collections (on the Landing, a mix of tags – especially in the form they will have in our forthcoming upgrade – and pinboards). In brief, it’s about connecting around what interests people, not about connecting with interesting people.

This new fork of Google Plus interests me most because it is very strongly focused on the social form that Terry Anderson and I describe as the set, as opposed to the network (like Facebook, LinkedIn and others). It is, like Pinterest, Reddit, Stack Exchange or SlashDot, much more about clusters of people around topics and areas of interest and, only as a side-effect, the networks or organized groups that might develop as a result. Some people talk of such things as networks of interest, but I think that is misleading as it implies a meaningful connection between people: as a social form, sets often involve little or no persistent social connection at all. This harks back to pre-web days, performing a technologically advanced version of the same kind of things Usenet newsgroups and bulletin boards used to do. That is still arguably the most interesting way the Internet changes things, because it benefits from the breakdown of physical boundaries and the presence of large, diverse crowds. This enables both crowd wisdom and the long tail and, as a learning tool, it is incredibly powerful. In a slightly different way, Wikipedia is also set-based, and so is YouTube. Apart from Google Search itself, these are probably the most successful examples of e-learning’s phenomenal success in the world today. What is particularly interesting about Google’s move is that, to a greater extent than has previously been possible, it offers a little bit of identity assurance, and controllable privacy, as well as in-built scalability, as well as the means to seamlessly shift into other social forms when needed or desired. There is some super-cool technology behind this, and some careful design. One of the biggest problems as well as an occasional benefit of sets has always been their relative anonymity. The worst flaming, trolling and griefing occurs in sets, rather than networks or closed, organized groups, because they are less intimate and people are less accountable to one another. I don’t think the revamped Google Plus will totally solve that, but it’s a step in the right direction. It also offers the opportunity for growth and evolution of other social forms, including networks. The fact that it offers communities, which can be as set-like or group-like as their owners wish (again, very like Elgg) helps with that a lot, and it seamlessly blends in to other group-oriented toolsets like (notably) Google Docs and Calendars. I hope that it picks up a few hints from Reddit, Stack Exchange or SlashDot (in increasing order of complexity and ingenuity) to help sustain those sets.

Google Plus has, from the start, had this kind of idea in mind. Its ‘Circles’ feature (that mirrors what Elgg and consequently the Landing had many years before) is about sets within networks – about recognizing that people are different in different contexts, wish to disclose different things to different people, and have many overlapping and/or separate spheres of interest at different times. This is fundamentally different from Facebook’s single-identity network model, and fundamentally stronger. Facebook’s model is focused solidly on building vast networks and driving adoption, which it does do incredibly efficiently, but it is a shallowing, smoothing model that devalues and ignores much of what makes us distinctively human. For all its addictive qualities it is also quite dull, and it leads to filter bubbles, echo chambers, narcissism, and a focus on breadth, not depth, of growth and knowledge. It’s a soft toolset that can do more than that, but its business model and basic shape are firmly centred on building the network at any cost. I suppose I should mention Twitter too, though that is a different kind of animal. Using both sets (hashtags) and networks (following), Twitter works because it connects people and other things. It is not a social network (though it has one) but is more of a hybrid between SMS and a social bookmarking service. If only it were not so intent on locking itself in and trying to embrace more than it should, it would be an excellent complement to Google+.

I think this is a minor reshaping of Google Plus, not a major overhaul. It is mostly about better marketing what it already does. I am surprised that anyone, least of all Google, ever imagined it was going head-to-head with Facebook. Google primarily wanted to know more about people so that it could integrate that knowledge into better search, not to build a vast social network. Though it might have liked the idea of stemming the flow of data into a closed system it could not access easily, it almost certainly knew that was a battle it could not win. But it was always attempting something much smarter, in the long term. Google Plus had (and has) a social networking toolset, sure, but that was not what gave it its primary character. It was always much more about stuff people shared, not people sharing stuff, which is of course what Google has done best for a long time and what really interests the company. Unfortunately, it was perceived as an unsuccessful Facebook competitor, and that has not helped its cause one bit. This new development is just a refinement of the system that makes that central differentiating aspect of it clearer and easier to understand.

I hope people get it, even though it is far from perfect. As a matter of principle I’m against any system that seeks to suck in and centralize what should be open and controlled by its users so this is far from the ideal way things should be. Unfortunately, none of the open initiatives that would give genuine ownership and control to users have gained market dominance yet, with the possible exception of WordPress. So, of all the larger companies that occupy this user-farming space, Google is perhaps the least objectionable and the most forward-looking. For all its smart AI and glitz, it might be the most human and, perhaps, the most genuinely open. At least, it tries not to lock its users in so they cannot get out and it seldom breaks standards to lock people in. It also does have some incredibly smart technology that is genuinely useful. Though there are many ways that its famous ‘don’t be evil’ mantra has not worked out as well as it should, it is way too centralized, it does not give true ownership to its users, and it seems to be getting greedier as it grows up, at least it’s not Facebook.

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I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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