The trouble with Google+

I’m concerned about some initial sociologial (versus technological) trends I’m seeing on Google+. Admittedly, I haven’t played around with it too much — I still like Twitter and Facebook, since people with whom I have high-value relationships participate heavily there. Google+ is more a novelty (and a necessity for me to figure out for my clients). And frankly, while I know lots of people love the Circles — for the non-Google+-er, those are groups in which you have to put people — I’m overwhelmed by having to choose where I want to put every single person in whom I have some semblence of interest. The implications of Circles could be a whole ‘nother post, so I’ll leave it at that.

What I’ve found troublesome so far is that the atmosphere/culture Google+ has far less “personality” than the other services do. I don’t see as much intimate content there (yet?) as I do other services. And the intimate content that is posted there doesn’t seem to resonate as much with readers.

I’m theorizing that this is entirely due to Circles. Because people have the ability to limit their more intimate moments to smaller groups of people, they seem to be automatically choosing to keep most intimate moments extremely private. This is a boon for issues of safety and vulnerability, for sure– as an advocate for privacy controls elsewhere, and against egregious privacy changes, I of course see the value.

But I’m mourning a little bit the loss of what often, for me, makes social networking so interesting: the very human, authentic versions of ourselves being shared in a wider public way. That kind of sharing initiates trust-building, validates others who have similar experiences, educates those who don’t, among many other sociological phenomena. But really, bottom line here, it made everyone seem actually human.

Google+ feels like a personal branding engine. And I hate personal branding. I’m often reminded of this quote from Tara Hunt in my book:

“People shouldn’t be acting more like brands,” she said. “We’re humans! Instead of having a personal brand, why not just have a personality?”

People on Google+ are sharing what they think wider audiences want to hear from them. Audiences. As in, “let me broadcast to you.” There is a missing emotional connection there that makes posting something “sharing.”

The last few years, we’ve had this remarkable revolution in sharing that has made it a little safer, and a little more fun, to make ourselves a teensy bit vulnerable. Now that we have a toy that gives us the option to hide our vulnerability, it feels like we’re choosing the easy way out.

The other thing that bothers me is the amount of people on Google+ talking about their exodus from the new red-headed stepchild of the moment, Facebook. I’m no lover of how Facebook handles a lot of its policies, mind you, but it still holds lots of value for me. One of my (many, many) cousins, who just had her first baby, isn’t on Google+ to share photos of him. Neither is my brother, who posts rare but utterly hilarious status updates. Nor are a huge swath of people from whom I want to learn, and about whose lives I want to hear.

Maybe you’re saying, “Not yet.” And maybe you’re right– maybe there will be a huge exodus someday, just as we all left Friendster and MySpace. But the tone of these anti-Facebook-community statements reminds me too much of what danah boyd talked about in her Personal Democracy Forum 2009 keynote, “The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online.” If you haven’t heard or read it, go now.

The basic point is that because social networks are social, they are completely wrapped up in all of the class, race, gender and other identity parameters that we carry with us in our offline lives. When the exodus from MySpace to Facebook started, it started with predominantly white, affluent kids who decided to get away from the “ghetto” of MySpace. A key quote from boyd:

They narrated MySpace as the dangerous underbelly of the Internet while Facebook was the utopian savior.

It sounds achingly familiar to what I read on Google+ == getting away from family members, getting away from app/game users, getting away from the inconsequential jabbering. There have also been sexist/ageist analyses saying “your mom won’t use Google+.” Because it started with the tech elite (who, I dare say, don’t have the highest emotional intelligence a lot of the time), this sad course of Escaping The Other(s) has started to be set.

This is all anecdotal, so I’m trying to raise a red flag and ask people to thing about their migratory behaviors and thought processes.

And, for the record, personally, I’m a big fan of inconsequential jabbering.

7 Responses to “The trouble with Google+”

  1. jon says:

    Well said! In terms of the lack of “personality” in the atmosphere and culture, while the UX is very clean, it’s also very stark and unemotional — for example no easy way of personalizing how it looks or skinning my profile, “+1″ing something instead of “liking” it, etc. And very insightful analogies to danah boyd’s work looking at the language a few years ago around teen movements from MySpace to Facebook. As well has her PDF keynote, her paper on “White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook”” seems relevant — the late 2009 draft is at, not sure if there’s a more recent one.

  2. Bill Cammack says:

    Good points, Deanna. :)

    Part of the current problem with sharing publicly, or even sharing with circles filled with random people that you’re just getting to know, is that dissimilar to Facebook, there’s no provision for you to post something for everyone in creation to view and simultaneously restrict commenting abilities to vetted members of your personal community.

    Because of this, sharing to Public, for instance, not only shows everybody your post, but enables anyone that can see it to comment on it whether you like it or not.

    Yes, there are blocking features, but people aren’t going to want to have their day ruined by having to block people AFTER reading what they wrote, so, until you’re able to set permissions on who can interact with your content instead of just reading it and sharing it, “Public” will be less used.

    Having said that.. you’re absolutely right. People are currently enjoying the ability to post things only to people that live near them, or only to people they work with, or only to people that share the same opinions as they do, or only people that they’ve met IRL…

    The people that are posting to Public are mainly marketers and people that have something to gain by people seeing their content and potentially following/circling them.

    Of course, there’s the typical overabundance of drivel (read: Cat Pictures and Animated .GIFs) that populates the Public stream, but that’s another value to Circles… You don’t have to read anything you don’t want to read if you’ve curated your groups properly.

    To add to the ‘antisocial’ nature of the system, hehe, it only takes about 3 seconds to hover over someone’s name and demote them to a circle of less importance to you or uncircle them entirely.

  3. Anna says:

    Actually, I just found out about a friend’s newborn’s brainscan for epilepsy on Google+, among other very personal issues. I’ve been seeing a lot of very private, intimate, personal stuff on Google+ among my friends. I find this much more similar to LiveJournal days, where I and friends could choose who got to see the less public stuff while still having the option to post publicly on a lot of stuff. So yeah – I guess it depends on your circles and who’s got you in circles. But our experiences differ.

  4. Tara Hunt says:

    Great post. And I agree. Google+ seems like a broadcast medium whereas Facebook feels like a place to be emotional, messy and generally human. One advantage, though. I can go and unfriend all non-friends in FB now and really, truly keep it for people I want to interact with on a personal level while I add anyone and everyone into circles on G+. I see them both having a role. I just like what FB has done for the world.

    p.s. I can’t believe I just typed that last line.

  5. Adina Levin says:

    Personally, I’m not finding Google+ cold, but I’m finding it lumpy. Some groups of friends are on there and some aren’t. I’m also finding it really delightful for meeting new people with shared interests. On the one hand, Deanna, I agree with you about wanting people to be human online. On the other hand there’s a big signal to noise issue – I dont’ mind sharing an occasional workout story, but I find it hard to believe that all of my acquaintances want to hear from me about several workouts per week. And also, public sharing requires a level of empathy and tolerance that isn’t universal. Pushing the boundary is good, but eliminating the boundary presumes a lot.

  6. Heidi says:

    I actually LIKE the lack of intimacy that you see on the other sites. As I was telling a busy professional Facebook-using friend, I can see Google+ as saving major amounts of time. I used an example of a high school friend friending me on Facebook. Then I see a picture of her kids. Then I’m looking at photo albums of weddings, pets and birthdays of someone whom, likely, I’ll never see again. There’s just too much opportunity to waste time.

    Additionally, it also prevents me from feeling like I’m broadcasting too much. Like Adina who commented above about the sharing an occasional workout story, I am now free to create my “exercise support” circle and let them know everything I eat or do that gives me a sense of accomplishment and know that they are willing to put up with it. Likewise, I have a “wedding party” circle for people who are socially obligated to listen to my obsessing over my wedding. A friend with a new puppy has the “people who want to see pictures of my puppy” circle so he doesn’t inundate people who just don’t care. I love the ease of creating mini-social networks within my greater social network. It really makes Google+ much more attractive than Facebook – at least for me.

  7. Cathesaurus says:

    Great post, Deanna! :) I’m still “jury’s out” on Google+… I haven’t been online much, since it was launched, because I’ve been trying to focus on Getting Stuff Done, and thus haven’t really had the time to kick the tyres yet. My interest in Google+ (as with any new technology) is twofold:

    1) What does this mean to me – personally, professionally, privately, publicly?

    2) What does (or might) it mean to the people I interact with – personally, professionally, privately, publicly?

    As I say, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to really answer these questions, but a few things have become clear to me, even with limited exposure:

    * A bunch of friends who will never touch Facebook with a barge-pole have readily started using Google+… so yay for enfranchisement;

    * The signal-to-noise ratio on Google+ seems much higher than it is on Facebook – this doesn’t really affect me (I can tune out the noise, or what I interpret as noise) but I know it affects others (i.e. I’ve had friends leave Twitter and Facebook when the ratio went too low) – and yes, I know that there are plenty of things people can do to tune their experience of such services, but some people will vote with their feet before that point, IMHO; and

    * I like the “circles” metaphor – especially when it comes to nesting circles. I think it’s a simple, yet powerful perspective on my social graph.

Leave a Reply