The most ambitious social experiment Google has yet attempted may only be days old, but the company is already claiming early success in uncovering new subtleties in the way the Facebook Generation wants to live its life online.
This week’s announcement of Google+, a service that is only available as part of a narrow, invitation-only trial, marks the beginning of a concerted attempt by the world’s most powerful internet company to maintain its relevance in the social networking age.
Data Google has been collecting show that new tools to make it easier for users to segment their online social connections into smaller groups are already influencing how they interact, says Vic Gundotra, the executive spearheading Google’s social efforts. Women, in particular, have been making much greater use of these more limited sub-networks, he says.
Freed of the concerns about who will see what they are posting, people are already showing signs of opening up about themselves far more, Mr Gundotra adds.
For Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook and high priest of the culture of online “sharing” it has ushered in, the challenge is direct.
Something has been fundamentally “broken” about online social networking, according to Google. “In the real world, people change how they behave” depending where they are or who they are talking to, says Mr Gundotra: online, they have been forced to present a single version of themselves to the world. That means not only losing control of who sees private information about them, it also makes it impossible for people to maintain the different personas they adopt in different situations.
Google’s gambit has raised two big questions about the future of life online. One is whether it really is possible, as the company claims, to hand internet users back control of their own lives.
The other: whether, even if it succeeds in bringing new subtleties to social engagement, this will do Google any good in its attempt to reverse the swing towards Facebook. If it fails, a single company could be set to dominate the world’s social life online for at least the next generation.
The feature of Google+ that is designed to give users a greater sense of control, called Circles, is aimed at a familiar complaint about Facebook.
People “struggle to navigate social situations online because they find that they have to simultaneously negotiate their friends from college drinking days, their colleagues at work and their kid’s friends’ parents,” says Danah Boyd, a social networking researcher who has studied the field since its early days. “Social media creates a series of context collapses that rupture social dynamics in funny ways.”
As a result, many users step back from posting actively on Facebook. New members of the service often follow a common pattern, says Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner: “sharing a few things, maybe oversharing, then dialling back when the novelty wears off and settling into [becoming] a passive observer.”
Advocates of the merits of wider posting of personal information online, however, argue that this represents a mistaken, and backward-looking, approach to the new networks.
“Online, there’s this temptation to think you can stop information spreading – you can’t,” says Jeff Jarvis, associate professor of journalism at the City University of New York and author of an upcoming book on the merits of online sharing.
The internet makes the sharing of information friction-free, according to Mr Jarvis. So even if you tell something only to a small group of friends, there’s no way to control how it is spread after that. In the online world we are all defined by what others say or post about us, adds Ms Boyd: as a result, we will have to get used to a new sense of “networked privacy” that will be very different from the sense of personal privacy we used to enjoy.
If there is an erosion of the barriers that made the old sense of privacy possible, Facebook has taken full advantage of the changing norms.
“They presume the more open you are with your data the more you’ll use the system,” says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, which was published last year.
At times, it can feel as though Facebook is deliberately playing on a generational divide as these changing norms take hold. With usage among the young far higher, it has encouraged the wider sharing of more information in public with progressive changes to its rules.
“We are all moving towards using Facebook the way young people use it,” says Mr Kirkpatrick.
According to Google, this slide towards a more open way of living online – and the sometimes uncomfortable social adjustments it forces on people – is not inevitable.
“I do think digital information flows more freely than atoms do in the real world,” says Bradley Horowitz, vice- president of product management at Google. “But we believe strongly that software can give people control.”
Facebook is almost certain to strike back, says Mr Valdes. It launched a pre-emptive move against Google late last year with its own feature to make it easier to set up smaller sub-networks – a service known as Groups, which has led to the creation of 50m more narrowly-defined sets of connections. Getting a durable lead over Facebook, whose membership of more than 700m has a strong reason to stay connected, will be hard.
“The chances of Google+ having an impact on Facebook are almost nil,” says Mr Kirkpatrick. “There’s not going to be a slightly better Facebook that beats Facebook.” But Google’s move into social networking looks like the beginning of a long war.