[ Essay ] The Problem with Google+


I haven't updated my Google+ status since the initial befriending (or +1ing?) fever. The notification counter on the Google bar has mostly been dim, which means not much is going on in my friends’ circles either. Only a handful of people regularly post updates, which are mostly links to news reports and YouTube videos. Google+ looks more like an advanced news aggregator than the glorified online chat room that Facebook is.

I don’t see any apparent problems. There are no buggy behaviors or annoying social game updates that have plagued Facebook for years (I empathize with my “friend” who brags about the number of mobsters he killed that day—I want to kill him too). The user interface has been designed by an ex-Apple charisma—so brilliant that Google has adopted that UI for other services . What about the number of users, the ultimate yardstick of success in the Net? Google has the largest reservoir in the world. I mean, maybe 70% of my acquaintances use Facebook, but 100% of them use Google’s services in some way. All Google has to do is to keep test-drilling—which they are doing relentlessly.

Then, is it just a matter of time, as Larry Page and his pals have been insisting? Will I jump on the bandwagon as soon as the majority of my friends start using it? Something tells me that won’t be the case. The true reason I haven’t been using Google+ is because it scares me (as always the case when I am reluctant to do something).

How come? Google is trying everything to make Google+ “friendly.” And there lies the problem. What’s at the core of Google—to make everything public and searchable—does not match the surface appearance of Google+—to make everything friendly and intimate. Google+ is a pill called “public” wrapped by a coating called “private.” I might even call it a red pill colored in blue. It does not look like a matter of mismatch. It looks more like deception.

In case of my two existing social networks, Facebook and Twitter, they are tuned to their expertise—private (Facebook) or public (Twitter)—inside out. Facebook makes it easier to upload multimedia files (URLs automatically turn into embedded videos, for example), form groups, and create events. Twitter gently forces me to feed information in a compact and easy-to-digest form (140 letters) and referring to other tweets or links can be done in seconds. I might post the same content to both networks, but my communication style changes between them—in Facebook I chat, and in Twitter I make statements. The platform architecture and my mindset are in sync.

If I use Google+, I might be inclined to create intimate and private conversations but might be (gently) forced to feed publicly. Will that be similar to creating a family drama on a stage, or worse—living inside a cage in a zoo? That is the source of my fear. I know, Google is simply trying to do what works best. Taking the best of both worlds by coupling an intimate and multimedia-friendly user interface (Facebook) with an open architecture (Twitter) is a smart strategy, and as a late comer to the social media wars, Google probably had no other choices.

I hear Google engineers clicking their tongues. Here we go again, dummy: You never see the option to switch Google+ circles to private mode. Technically that’s true. I can do the same for Facebook and Twitter too. I can “open” Facebook by making a public profile and allowing subscriptions, or I can “close” Twitter by forbidding automatic following and hiding my tweets. But that’s not what they are designed for. At their cores, Facebook is a chat tool and Twitter is a personal radio station. I feel at home by using them the ways they were created for.

But what is Google+ created for, after all? What is at its heart? I am not quite convinced that Google made Google+ just to let users have fun. I rather believe what’s at the heart of Google+ is the Google DNA: to make every piece of information publicly accessible. It is slightly different from Twitter, which only “allows” users to make information public. Google, therefore Google+, “makes” users do so.

Up until now, we the happy innocent masses were on the receiving end: pick whatever useful topic you're interested in from the ocean of information provided by the Almighty G. But we have slowly been realizing that we have also been integrated into the ocean itself, and Google is making it clearer—for example by integrating Google+ into Google search results, which has been causing tons of arguments over the Net.

Quite possibly I am resisting the inevitable. Even more possibly I might become a heavy Google+ user after the tipping point, when my friends start showing up more on Google+ than Facebook. But I do want to record the uneasiness I am having now; it was, is, and will, stay. Five years from now, I will look back and will see the whole picture.