Why Google plus will fail

Before I began my first degree in Psychology, I read a book about how friendships work. It goes like this:

“The development of friendship occurs through the skills of partners in revealing or disclosing their attitudes first and later their personalities, inner characters and true selves. This must be done in a reciprocal manner, turn-by-turn, in a way that keeps pace with revelations and disclosures made by the partner” (Duck S. 1983 pg67)

When the first big social network (Facebook) began it was based on the idea of a college yearbook (Name, Photo, Personal information). That’s fine for a yearbook, because everybody who reads it will likely be part of the same social network. In the real world even this “basic” information can vary radically according to who we interact with.

For example, I have no single photo suitable for everyone I know. Work colleagues expect a professional photo (at a desk with Second Life running); personal friends want something more about me (Capsule hotel, Tokyo, 2001); Second Life friends expect, well, an avatar…

Then there’s my name. Surely that’s consistent? Well, again, the same three groups probably expect, respectively, Dr Rudman, Paul, PD Alchemi. Think about it. What does your boss call you? Your mother? Your partner at 1am?

Revealing one’s full name and work identity could be way too much of a leap for a new social acquaintance. A photo that somehow reveals religious or political views could be a shock for work colleagues who may have assumed something completely different. It’s not that these things are “secret”, just that they need to be shared appropriately.

We are all at some stage in the friendship forming process with each of our “friends”. For some it will be a temporary stage as we move forward. For others it will be a stage from which we prefer not to move further forward. But whatever the stage, we need to be careful not to jump too far ahead, not to reveal something which that particular friendship is not yet ready for.

Google plus – Google’s foray into the world of social networking – allows people to be allocated to “circles”, i.e. groups for filtering information. It’s a significant step forward, but alas, I suspect it will not be enough. Not all friends are equal. Some can be told about the club last night, some can’t; some can know about holiday exploits, others cannot. There needs to be some form of categorisation system that matches up individuals and information, so people can slowly move from strangers to “inner circle” – or not, as desired.

Google plus’s twitter-esque ability of one-sided friendships, also known as “following” people, or putting strangers in one’s circle, is another good move, but without a new system for controlling who sees what it’s just Twitter@Google.

One complaint about Google plus is that it won’t let people create an account for their avatar. An avatar is a mechanism for social relationships, whether Google like it or not. We recently saw the beginnings of a social network for avatars in Second Life. It’s pretty rudimentary at present, but it will probably survive, maybe even thrive, because it partly fills this gap.

The fundamental problem is one of revealing personal information appropriate to the depth of each social relationship. *Everything* needs to be tailored to the people who will receive it. Everything you post, your name, your photo, the other people in your network – who they are, what they represent and what they post – all say a lot more than most people realise. All can damage the delicate sequence and balance of a social relationship.

Circles were a great idea, but they just don’t go far enough. There needs a finer grained definition of who should know what. Like a leaking bucket, it’s not the bucket that needs fixing, it’s the leak.

And that’s why Google plus fails to improve on Facebook and Twitter, and ultimately will fail to become the new dominant social network.

Comments please…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Duck, Steve. 1983. Friends, for life: the psychology of close relationships. Harvester Press, Brighton, Sussex

Google, and the mysterious case of the disappearing maze

Google has been in the news recently. When they sent cars around the UK to take photos for the rather handy Street View project, not only did they make a note of everybody’s wireless network, but, it seems, they stored some of the data being sent across the networks as well. Data like passwords and emails.

Yesterday, something unusual happened in our virtual Media Zoo that brought this to mind. Later this year, we will be running our second major study for the SWIFT project. This will see dozens of students use a virtual genetics lab to add to their learning of practical laboratory skills. Recently, I have been creating a self-directed training area where our participants will be able to go to learn the basics of participating in this virtual world – provided in this case by Second Life.

Self-directed training area for SWIFT

Self-directed training area for SWIFT

I wanted some sort of path, to guide visitors through a series of tasks, and ended up buying a garden maze for 25 linden Dollars (about 6p here, or 10 US cents). I set that out with a number of information boards, each one describing a particular skill, such as walking, talking to others, putting on a lab coat etc., the idea being to take the visitor through all the skills they will need to participate in the study. Yesterday, I was putting the finishing touches on this induction area, and needed to move the maze half a pace East.

Except I couldn’t edit the maze. On further inspection, it seemed I no longer owned the maze – it now belonged to some random avatar! How strange. How come?

So I bought another maze and “returned” the original to its new owner, then set about figuring out what went wrong. It seems that the maker of this maze set it up rather strangely. Firstly – and this is normal enough – the maze I bought was copy protected: I could give it away or sell it if I wished, but my one copy would be transferred to the new owner and I would lose it. Secondly – and this is the strange part –my maze had been set to “For Sale” with a price of zero dollars. (Usually, the maker leaves this field blank for the new owner to set if they ever wish to resell it). So, my maze was on sale for free without me knowing it, and it seems that some enterprising avatar had snapped it up!

Well, so, who is to blame? Is it a) the maze-maker for leaving their product set to allow anyone to walk off with it, b) myself for not checking every setting on everything I purchase, or c) the other avatar for taking something that was being given away?

Then I remembered Google. They took information that was left lying around because the security wasn’t switched on, on people’s wireless networks – like pasting pages from a personal diary on your garden gate for all to see. So, same question. Who’s at fault? Is it a) the manufacturer of the wifi boxes, b) the owner who’s using the box or c) Google for taking something that was being given away?

I shall be bold here and supply an answer. I don’t think you can blame Google or the visiting avatar. It seems reasonable to me that if something is being given away, and there’s no apparent harm to be done in taking it, and it’s not being taken for any malicious purpose, then by all means take it. (Of course, it has to be legal too, and this is where Google may possibly have a problem).

And I don’t think you can blame the owner. When you buy something, you expect it to just work. Safely.

No, I think it’s down to the manufacturer to think about how their customers will use the object and do their best to make it usable. How many people buy something and want anybody to be able to buy it for free? How many people buy a wifi box and want the whole world to use it?

The same principle needs to apply to our virtual genetics lab. As the “manufacturer”, we have made a lot of effort to ensure that the lab is realistic, effective,  and easy to use. November 24th will be the big day, when we let our student volunteers loose in the lab, and find out just how successful we have been.

Paul Rudman, BDRA


Try our new training area yourself; download Second Life and follow this link

The Post-Google Generation

Last April I attended E for Enhancement 2009, an all-Wales e-Learning conference in Cardiff. During his very inspiring keynote, Prof Stephen Heppell related some facts about the online behaviour of the very young. In one of his projects, Prof Heppell, in perhaps an excessive burst of trustful enthusiasm, handed out iPhones to young teens and set them to work on a series of tasks which took several weeks to complete. At the end of the project, the students reported that they had used every feature of the iPhone “except this one button which has something to do with work” — email. Prof Heppell also stated that for children younger than 10, the search engine of choice is YouTube. Indeed, as of January 2009, the number two search engine, after Google of course, is YouTube.

I don’t recall whether Prof Heppell used the term “the post-Google Generation” in his keynote, but it is most appropriate for the age group (probably those born after 1990) which does not even recognise the need to use the all-pervasive Google to find things on the web. Marc Prensky gave us the term “digital natives.” The “Google generation” has been used to refer generally to those who seem to know no other way of finding information than to “Google it.” But I find it fascinating that very young people, who have never known a world not just without the internet but without full multi-media, go directly to the multi-media offerings of YouTube. Indeed, until I heard Prof Heppell quote this statistic, I did not even consider YouTube to be a search engine.

But of course it is a search engine. Need a recipe for macaroni cheese? YouTube not only displays the recipe but shows just how the butter should look when it’s time to stir in the flour to make the sauce. Just getting started in Second Life? There are innumerable “Beginning Second Life” tutorials on YouTube, some posted by higher education instructors for their own university students.

The truly fascinating question for me is: why is it that very young people who grow up with digital multi-media seem to think differently about how to search, how to learn, and how to do just about everything? Why do they skip Google when older surfers can’t live without it?

My post-Google-Generation daughter decided to learn to play the piano – well, the digital keyboard. We were ready with a piano teacher and the traditional regime of “one lesson per week, then nag daughter to practice.” Daughter had other plans. “I’ll just teach myself from YouTube,” she announced. As a child, I learnt piano the traditional way, and after one or two years of lessons, I could still only play fairly boring pieces. Yet after only a couple of months of YouTube, Daughter can play a handful of fairly impressive pieces. Perhaps her relative success can be attributed to the fact she chose exactly what she wanted to learn to play, then just learnt it, and enjoyed it, and therefore got results more quickly. The downside is that Daughter has not learnt to read much music from YouTube. But in a very post-Google way, she achieved what she wanted: musical enjoyment for herself and her listeners through playing the piano.

In “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky suggests that prolonged exposure to immersive digital multi-media actually results in fundamentally different thinking processes. The onus is on the educator, therefore, to be prepared with learning tools suited for the post-Google Generation, as well as with the research to inform and support the use of such tools.

Terese Bird

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