Sunday, July 03, 2011

Software Engineering vs the Sociotechnical: a Google Plus Post

I have not been able to get my hands on an invite to Google Plus, Google's latest attempt to create a viable Facebook competitor. My only perspective to date has been from the video reviews that are now popping up on Youtube. This one, for example:.
From what I can see, Google has basically copied almost of all of Facebook's functionality, page layout and all, then added some of its own distinguishing features. These features are "circles", "hangouts" and "sparks". Looking at what they're trying to do, I'm uncertain if Google is fully understanding what they are trying to build: not just a technological platform for social communication, but a social world in itself.

The obvious first problem is making the thing invite-only. Part of Facebook's current appeal is that everybody is on there. In fact, part of the appeal of any social networking site is that other people are on there. According to Metcalfe's Law, the growth of value on a communication network grows exponentially in relation to the growth in the number of people who are on the network. Sure, Gogle Plus is in beta, and from an engineering perspective, it makes sense to only let potential debuggers on there first. But the engineering perspective is the wrong perspective to have.

In my area of study, the terminology for an approach that regards things in terms of both their social and technological factors is "sociotechnical". And I think in this case, the sociotechnical approach says: don't create an online social platform that depends on having as many people on it as possible in order for it to work most effectively, and then tell the vast majority of people that potentially want in on it that they're not invited.

The three highly-marketed new features of Google Plus (circles, hangouts and sparks) can be interpreted as new sociotechnical processes for communication. Before going into analysis of those new processes, I need to do a brief foray into some communication theory and how it relates to Facebook. Communication can be categorised in a number of ways. The divides I'm going to use are (1) "discursive" versus "presentational" forms of communication, and (2) "phatic" versus "informational" forms of communication.

Discursive communication generally refers to written and spoken language, usually thought of as privileging logic and rationality. Presentational communication generally refers to visual and aural pictures and sounds, usually thought of as privileging emotion and feeling. Presentational communication can generally be absorbed much faster and more fully than discursive communication (you can literally take it all in with a glance), but discursive communication tends to be more complete and more detailed.

Phatic communication refers to communication that cements social bonds: the actual content of the communication is irrelevant to the purpose of publicly creating and reinforcing the social bonds between individuals. danah boyd has called this kind of communication "social grooming". Informational communication refers, obviously, to communication that has informational content. These two categories are not mutually exclusive. However, phatic communication with little informational content is very efficient compared to any kind of communication with a great deal of informational content.

In a world where less and less time is available to communicate with more and more people, the speed and efficiency of presentational and phatic communication are preferable to the slower forms of discursive and informational communication. This can be seen in the evolution of Internet technologies, from Usenet groups to blogging to social networking to microblogging: each one enables more and more communication to be done with less and less discursive and informational content. Social networking in general, and Facebook in particular, maintain their continuing appeal due to their privileging of presentational and phatic communication. For the average user, Facebook status updates, comments, and especially "likes", are a quick way to use phatic communication to efficiently maintain social bonds with their hundreds to thousands of online "friends". But probably more important is the time and effort that's been put into making the Facebook website as oriented to presentational communication as possible: everything is highly visually-oriented rather than text-oriented (with certain obvious exceptions; more on that later). Indeed, the "killer app" of Facebook is most likely the photo gallery facility. It is here that friends can share visual representations of times and events spent together, ostensibly with a great deal of privacy as well.

Which brings us to Google Plus and its new features. With their first feature, "circles", Google has taken an obvious swipe at Facebook's...shall we say, "un-nuanced" approach to privacy. In Facebook, the ability to create and maintain different groups with different sharing settings is present, but not particularly pleasant: you create the group and, one by one, type in the names of friends you want to add to it. Assigning the correct permissions to the correct groups is also a chore, I've been told. Google Plus' approach has made the process much more visually oriented: group assignment is drag-and-drop over a visual map of all available circles, not just manual assignment to one group at a time. This process will make group maintenance much easier.

Whether the circles feature will make discrete group sharing more useful is another qeustion altogether. Part of the problem with all attempts to do this sort of thing online is that the attempt to mimic contextual sharing as it exists offline (where you're willing to share some things with some people, but not others) is by its very nature very difficult to replicate online: offline, the separation of context exists by default; online, the separation is something that must be actively created and constantly maintained. This constant requirement to expend effort to keep the contexts separate online is the true obstacle to effective implementation of conextual privacy online, not just an easier ability to create and maintain the existence of different sharing groups. Does Google Plus make this effort easier somehow? I don't see how it does.

Moving on, "hangouts" isn't a particularly revolutionary breakthrough. It's Facebook chat, but video chat instead of text chat. Facebook in fact is going this way too, with Skype soon to supply such chat on Facebook. What is different, but doesn't yet seem to be implemented, is apparently the ability to have multiple people chatting over video simultaneously.

Facebook chat is probably the most glaring exception to the preference for presentational over discursive communication on the Facebook platform. Chat is text-based. It conceals a lot of the emotive content that would occur over a video-type chat. Some people actually prefer this, as it allows them to exert much greater control over their online persona and online communications: there is no requirement to be always and immediately emotionally available to the people that they're chattting with, and there is the opportunity to take time to think about and consciously craft their communication with others. Video chat would eliminate these perceived advantages. Of course, for people who find text chat distasteful precisely because it lacks the emotive content of face to face communication, they would most likely prefer the video option (assuming they have the technology to make use of it: many people still don't have cameras connected to computers). From an engineering perspective, Google has the nous and framework to easily implement video chat thanks to their work on Google Talk. From a sociotechnical perpsective, it's not a bad thing either, but only if text chat is still available alongside video chat. Is it? I'm honestly not sure.

Finally, "sparks" are a new idea to apply to social networking sites. The idea seems to be to try and use interests and the like to try and stimulate conversation among friends who want to talk about that interest (or event, or person, or object). It actually seems to be an idea from Google's business department: try to leverage Google Plus' "plus one" feature (their answer to the Facebook "like" button) to improve the search results in their core product by recording how many people "plus one" the various interests (and potential search terms) that they are exposed to through sparks. The sociotechnical question in this case is whether anyone is going to use it. The default assumption of sparks even being a good idea is that all communication is informational: it's about something. This is wrong. In fact, to date "informational" communication has actually been deprivileged on social networking sites in favour of communication that is purely phatic. As someone who has the time and inclination to talk in detail online (just look at the size of this blogpost, and I'm not even done yet :P), I would probably like this. For many people, particularly the target market of people who use social networking sites (i.e Facebook users), this feature doesn't really offer much to the user, as most of them only really use Facebook to "keep in touch" rather than to have deep and meaningful exchanges about stuff. Unfortunately, the perceived business advantage to Google, through exploitation of the "plus one" feature for search optimisation, may blind them to the reality of how communication on social networking sites actually works (i.e. it is phatic far more than it is informational).

So, Google Plus offers some new things. But does it offer enough to encourage people to switch from Facebook, where all their friends and contacts are still set up, and have been for some time? Well, the obvious answer is that people can't switch anyway while the whole thing is still invite-only. Once Google Plus goes public, the answer may change. My tentative answer right now is that it will appeal to some people, namely those who have friends there already (which means friends of web-developers and other people currently entitled to Google Plus invites will move across), those who have the desire and available technology to use video chat (which means people in the upper half of the Western world's income bracket), and those who have both the time and inclination to make talk online. This means Google Plus would be the preferred location for people who are comfortably well-off, employed in white-collar jobs that are not too time-consuming, and who are comfortable with communicating online about things that they're interested in, in detail.

Hmm. If Google Plus takes off, and that becomes its expected demographic, what then becomes the expected demographic of Facebook?

1 comment:

Bill Dietrich said...

I'd like to get your feedback about a page I've created, about the good and bad features of Facebook and how they should fix it: Some of the issues and ideas may apply to Google+ also. Thanks.