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The launch of Google+ has caused quite a stir in the ‘digital community’ with many viewing it as a potential game changer while others see only a desperate, and ultimately futile, attempt to try and combat the seemingly unstoppable Facebook juggernaut.
Whether Google+ succeeds or fails, only time will tell. But, for me, some of the subtler – and indeed less subtle – features in this new network points towards a change in our approach to social networking and online social behaviour in general.
Social technologies have seen great advances and widespread adoption. But the way we behave socially online is still unnatural and stilted. The technology doesn’t yet fully reflect the way we socially interact in real-life.
I think we could be approaching a new social sophistication when it comes to online interactions. Google+ and other recent technologies seem to mirror this and perhaps pre-empt this move.
Last year there was an interesting psychological study carried out amongst UCLA students, the findings of which were published in Media Psychology Review.
It set out to examine the parallels between online and offline social connectivity, to see how this related to two commonly held paradigms – the deficiency paradigm, where individual use of social media is as a compensation for unsatisfactory face-to-face interactions, and a global use paradigm, in which social media use is viewed as universal and therefore parallel to face-to-face behaviour.
In the study, patterns of use of Facebook were compared with patterns of offline social connectivity.
Interestingly, in contrast to similar studies conducted previously, it found that:
...the overwhelming quantity of [social network site] use among college students is more consistent with the global use paradigm, which sees internet use as universal, as opposed to a realm inhabited by people who are somehow different than non-users.
The study suggests that the way we interact online is moving more towards the way we approach social connections and interactions in the real world. It also reveals that this has changed and developed since previous studies as social networking matures and as technology advances.
As our sophistication and savvy when using social networks increases (and as the technology advances to allow us to do this), the way we socialise and want to socialise online also changes, as the study itself says:
An additional challenge facing researchers who wish to explore the impact of Internet use is the rapidly changing nature of the technology and the services provided. In the mid to late 1990s, email, gaming, chat rooms, listservs, and information search predominated.
Today’s phenomenal growth in social media provides a completely different environment for investigating correlations between psychological well-being and Internet use.
So it seems as though the way we interact online could be set to change. And I think there are a number of key features, technologies and approaches – some of which already exist – that will be the drivers of what I (uninspiringly) call social 2.0.
‘Circles’ in Google+ is a clear case in point and relates very closely to the findings of the UCLA study.
Circles allows users to have groups of people categorised in any way you want, but probably in terms of your relationship to them – friends, family, ‘online friends’, strangers, celebrities etc.
This is a feature that exists in Twitter to some extent with Lists, but is unique in Google+ in that it allows you to restrict the information you receive and, crucially, share with these groups.
Facebook also has a similar – if largely hidden – feature (also called Lists), which allows the segmentation of friends. The chief difference here (apart from the centrality of the feature on Google+) is that Facebook is a symmetric sharing network (where both parties have to ‘opt-in’) whereas Google+ (and Twitter) are built on the asymmetric network model.
The Google+ model is therefore much closer to how we might interact in real-life. We have different circles of friends and acquaintances and share different information with each. This sharing and communicating can be one-directional or two, with the full control of who learns what being up to us to control.
In the past, this desire to segment social connections was generally through network selection – e.g. Facebook for friends and family, Linkedin for work and with Twitter acting as a hybrid between the two. Google+ conveniently brings all three into the same place.
Much of this, Google hopes, will be driven by natural social behaviour that we already embody offline. Of course, other networks could quickly adopt similar features but if Google can drive interest in Google+ it might just have something that comes very naturally to its users and ushers in a new, more powerful way to be social online, driven by offline behaviour.