Hi all. I’m back from my summer vacation.
The big news on the Internet was the launch of Google+ (henceforth G+) in late June. Right after the launch I was lucky enough to attend a keynote presentation at the Consumer Culture Theory Conference in Chicago by Eszter Hargittai. I enjoyed her keynote immensely and it confirmed many of my own intuitions. Her research concentrates mostly on digital media literacy and skills and she showed that some the things we had come to believe about young people (aka ”digital natives”) don’t really hold up upon closer inspection. She says that while young people overall spend a lot of time online, demographic variables matter immensely (family background, etc.) when it comes to who participates and how much. Some young people from less priviliged backgrounds are in fact quite unskilled and unwilling online participants. And at the end of her talk, she stated that these differences in skill will become increasingly relevant social issues, particularly thanks to services like G+.
G+ is of course intended to be a direct competitor to Facebook. And to make a compelling case for people to switch (or at least adopt it) is to do something a lot better than Facebook does. And G+ has found that gap: it allows you to communicate easily with groups of friends, instead of having to always let all of your friends know what you were up to. Now before you start protesting that you can do it on Facebook too, please stop. It was a pain, so nobody did it. But in G+, the circles function is brilliant: it’s intuitive, fast and convenient. It makes targeted communication the primary function, not an afterthought or something you do when you absolutely must. Personally I had long been frustrated by Facebook’s current state. Nowadays everybody I know is on Facebook from former bosses to relatives and, uh, ”female acquaintances”.
As these people started to add me as their friends (refusing a FB add is still a faux pas), my ”room to manuever” in terms of how I would express myself became smaller and smaller. Of course I was still making breathtakingly brilliant status updates, but at the same time I was self-censoring myself a lot. And I didn’t like it. But when G+ arrived? Ahhhhhhh. The first thing I did was to create a circle called ”Filth” and add a very special selection of friends who share my somewhat twisted sense of humor. Suddenly, I had an audience again! You should see some of the stuff we have been posting there. No wait, you really shouldn’t. That’s the whole point.
But let’s be serious for a bit. I’d argue that the arrival of G+ when read together with some other newspieces that hit the net marks what I call the Age of Expansion in social media (Facebook and Twitter showing signs of contraction in the US, for example). Sure, more and more people are finding their way to social media, but people are starting to scale back as to with whom they communicate and how. I remember just two years ago some of my friends were actively bragging (half joking, half serious) about how many Facebook friends they had. But now these same friends have actually removed or hidden a lot of these same friends (I’ve hidden around 20% of my friends on Facebook personally). The high friend count has lost its trophy value and people are instead starting to understand the value of exclusivity and privacy. Sure, some of the more narcissistic personalities don’t care about it at all, but the rest of us are starting to scale back a bit.