Here’s what Google+ could have been

April 6, 2012 | 2 comments

Confession: I want to like Google+. I think competition is a great thing, and Google is in a unique position to do something fascinating with social platforms. It’s also significant that a lot of really brilliant people from the decentralized web community – Chris Messina, Will Norris and Stephen Paul Weber, for example – now work at Google. (Not to mention Elgg’s Evan Winslow.) I have nothing but respect for those guys. And, hey, I’ll admit that I’m a little envious that they get to work on it.

In my opinion, search needs to be at the center of social software. It’s how you find new people, resources and shared conversations. As I argued on a panel at SXSW 2011, it’s far more natural to visit someone’s profile by typing “Ben Werdmuller” (for example) into a box than typing “http://benwerd.com/” or “http://facebook.com/ben.werdmuller”.

Google has over 66% of the US search market, so it’s in a great place to be where that happens, which is presumably what was on their minds when they decided to build a social platform. They also have traditionally had a problem with the “deep web” – the non-public bits of information that its spiders can’t get to. More and more, that’s because these web resources are subject to user-centric access permissions within web applications. Because the Google search spider isn’t a user, it doesn’t have access to these resources, and they never get listed.

Which is why I’m so surprised that Google+ has remained a monolithic social dashboard, akin to Twitter or Facebook. (In fact, it’s more so than Facebook, which has done a great job at turning itself into a very impressive social platform.) You share stuff using +1 buttons or the interface on the Google+ site itself, and are limited to the small number of data types that Google have provided on their own site. You can post links, photos, videos and text updates.

But Google is great at making platforms. Because of its openness, Google Maps is still the go-to standard for displaying cartographic information on the web. (It’s significant that its creator now works at Facebook.) Google Analytics is just about everywhere. And Google APIs are typically easy to use, fast to integrate and powerful.

So why isn’t Google+ a platform? The Circles functionality is brilliant: nuanced access control made simple. If Google integrated those access controls throughout the whole web, allowing anyone to integrate them into their sites and applications with search and universal sharing across all of them, they would effectively become a social application operating system. It would be a new kind of platform altogether, and would cement their search portal – and thus, their advertising – as the default place to look for connected resources. To keep privately-shared resources secure, social objects could be stored in the Google cloud, presenting themselves to a requesting application only if the authenticated user had access. At Elgg, we wanted to do this with a feed format called the Open Data Definition half a decade ago, but didn’t have the resource to execute to our satisfaction; Google has those resources. Universally shareable social objects with privacy controls, searchable via a unified Google interface, would transform the web.

Maybe this is what Google is warming up to. But right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, Facebook is a more interesting social platform.

Spire Magazine: a teenage (mis)adventure

September 3, 2011 | Leave a comment

My high school yearbook entryI wrote a piece over on Google+ about Spire Magazine, my first real Internet project:

I became the editor and publisher, roping in our friends with the promise that they could get free games if they reviewed them. We considered static text files or the web, but decided that neither had the possibilities for layout and design that we wanted. So instead, every month I would edit everyone’s articles and compile them down into Windows Help format: an encapsulated hypertext format that could easily be downloaded. (These days, I’m convinced I would have used epub.)

[...] One piece we ran several times was called “What do you do on the Internet?” Nowadays the answer would be “everything”, but back then usage was still emerging. So people like Nicholas Negroponte, G.B. Trudeau and Roger Ebert would reply with very specific examples. I wish I still had a copy of these early issues.

These experiences still color everything I do; you can read the whole post over here. What was your first Internet project?

Patronism and monetizing the social web

July 19, 2011 | Leave a comment

This post is adapted from something I wrote on Google+. There are more comments over there; also see Evan Promodou’s riff on the same idea.

Google+’s combination of streams and circles works. So here’s something I’ve been mulling over for a while:

I really like Patronism‘s central idea. Rather than buying an album, you subscribe to an artist’s feed, and get access to songs, photos etc as they’re produced. That makes a lot more sense to me as a 21st century model for music.

I also follow a lot of writers that I admire, mostly over on Twitter. They don’t post their work there, of course, because there’s no revenue stream for it. But I do get to see what William Gibson, Margaret Atwood et al are thinking on a daily basis. Awesome.

What if I could pay a subscription to the writers & artists I admired, and see their latest content as part of my stream? Short stories to peruse offline, songs to pull to my iPod, and so on. Not to mention academic articles from journals, mini-games from indie developers and so on.

This works best on a decentralized web of nodes. The artist has their home base, eg at artistname.com. They then push out their content, and people can subscribe on Google+, Facebook, in their RSS reader, in a specialized app, from their WordPress dashboard, and so on.

And suddenly you have a monetized decentralized social web. Paid licenses are just one of many kinds of access controls on stream content; circles and access control groups are certainly another. And of course, content can be made available publicly too.

Double-plus Google: finally, a mass market enterprise social network

June 28, 2011 | 1 comment

I’ll spare you the summary postĀ for Google+; you can get that on TechCrunch, Mashable, the New York Times and in about a thousand other places. It’s a social sharing component that’s directly integrated into Google, enhancing everything they do. It puts privacy front and center using a long-rumored feature called Circles, which in my opinion mostly serves to make the user feel safe (after all, the data is still all stored on Google’s servers, so any appearance of deep privacy is an illusion). It learns from your social activity in order to recommend new content, thereby facilitating a kind of serendipity in content discovery that’s long been missing.

Although I haven’t used it first-hand yet, and Google often lets its ideas down with poor user experience, I think the concepts are brilliant: much-needed enhancements to the social networking paradigm that take it beyond the 2004-era profiles-friends-posts model. I can’t wait to try it out.

They’re not pushing this aspect too hard, but I think Google+ is going to be strongest in the area where Facebook is weakest: small to medium businesses. You’d have to be an idiot to try and use Facebook as an internal communication tool in any company, but by adding Circles, Google+ enables just that: you can share real-time content between just a small number of people. More than that, though, up to ten people can videoconference live, optionally while consuming that same content.

If Google have pulled this off, and if Google+ is properly integrated with Google Apps, they’ve instantly created the best business collaboration tool on the market – as well as a great tool for people who want to share in a much deeper, less trivial way than Facebook currently allows. If they then add an API layer, as they have with many of their other offerings, they’ve created a social layer for the web, just as Google Maps is for many people a location layer. It’s a really big deal.

Of course, it’s centralized on Google’s servers, and educational institutions, government organizations and anyone with a legal or ethical obligation to treat users’ data as being private should stay away. The decentralized web community is busy creating better tools for those use cases, and for anyone who cares deeply about privacy, as well as entirely new interface models. Circles itself is not a million miles away from Diaspora’s Facets, for example, and there’s still everything to play for. Nonetheless, Google have iterated social networking as a concept, and I’m fascinated to see how the web community in general responds.

Update: Google also announced Google Takeout today: a tool that allows you to export your Google data and take it with you. Google+ is very much in the mix here. Could this be the first mainstream social network to achieve real data portability? Given the number of decentralized social web advocates on the team, it wouldn’t be surprising.

Update 2: I took an export of my Google account via Takeout (you can do the same here) and although it’s impressive, I was left with questions. Why does Google Buzz export as a huge number of HTML files rather than an Activity Stream, for example? Where are my Google Docs files? It looks like the bundle wasn’t designed to import into other software, which I would have thought is kind of the point?