Tuesday 17 April 2012

Why Do We Perhaps Need To Keep Google Plus Alive

There is little secret that Google's recent venture into creating a rival for Facebook (and also Twitter) has been a disappointment. In fact, one article says that one Steve Yegge, a Google Engineer, published publicly by mistake what was supposed to be a private post, saying that that "the Google Plus platform is a pathetic afterthought." It is also said that, in an act of ultimate irony, even Larry Page himself, being one of the two main founders of Google, went for a month without posting anything on his G+ account. Reportedly, traffic and activity have dropped by more than 50% of the past few months on G+ (from more than 120 million active users to less than 60 million) following a previously cataclysmic rush for the service. While some drop was necessarily expected, it was never expected to be this bad. 

For the most part, users found no reason to either give it dedicated extra time within their busy days, or take time off Facebook and Twitter to give it to Google Plus. You just felt "no need" for such a third network. And in fact, many users (like I mentioned above) have already taken the plunge and deactivated their G+ accounts, often announcing it with sarcastic fanfare on their other network of choice. However, there might be one or more reasons why we might need to keep G+ alive.

First, Facebook and Twitter have been overwhelmingly and increasingly dominating information exchange. While Twitter uses more open information-sharing policies, including the capacity to more easily search tweets and pictures using search engines, Facebook has been closing down more and more. In fact, Facebook has been attempting to absorb people into its own walled-ecosystem for quite sometime now, making it difficult for example for other companies to have access to particular sets of data that would otherwise be accessible at least within the Google Model (there is the question of user consent of course). Facebook has also been trying to replace traditional email with its messaging systems, and also decrease the need for other photo-sharing, online gaming and blogging platforms. While it is remarkable that Facebook is trying to create such a one-stop-shop of integrated services, yet it also challenges with such a strategy much of the rest of the internet, primarily stand-alone-sites which might end up becoming Facebook apps. Interestingly as well, until this moment, Facebook remains a privately held company, allowing them pretty much to control their privacy, data sharing or any other policies much to their pleasure.

Second, there is the critical issue of global activism. Social networks have been phenomenally involved in strengthening and energising protests and promoting causes around the world, from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement, and beyond. Twitter has already been forced to apply a (still non-alarmingly-used) degree of censorship on a country-by-country basis, setting an worrying precedent as to what might end up being a floodgate of future possible restriction possibilities.  I remember a week of heated offline and online debate where thousands of us, private users and activists and writers, were debating "what alternative is out there in case Twitter becomes genuinely censored?" 

Facebook has its many problems in that regard as well. For example, it also has complete control over which public pages it deletes if they get enough signals and reports from disgruntled users, sometimes leading to useful and totally legitimate pages being deleted simply because it was mass-signaled by an intellectually opposing camp. Blogposts shared on Facebook aren't as easily read by everyone out there, or are as readily searchable online. There is, of course, the question of "Real ID", wherein Facebook insists that you use your true identity. This actually once led to the closure of the famous We Are All Khaled Said page until one of the (previously anonymous) admins volunteered his identity to Facebook, thus restoring the page but leaving himself exposed to Egypt's security crackdown on activists during Mubarak (not like that stopped now). On a slightly less tense note,  here used as an example of how ridiculous things could get, Facebook even blocks certain words from being used as a profile name, like what happened with Australian graphic designer Beta Yee whose account was challenged by Facebook's verification system repeatedly because she cannot use "Beta" as a name.

The concentration of the flow of information, particularly when it comes to activism, in the hands of two major entities could lead into very a compromising and fragile situation with regards to freedom of information broadcast and circulation. The question of potential "non-neutral" significant takeover by one party or another was also raised after a controversial Saudi billionaire recently bought a hefty share of Twitter, with the social network shortly after announcing its censorship policies, leading many users to claim in anger that both events were connected.

The point is that Twitter and Facebook need to be continuously challenged to open up, develop, and feel they stand to lose much quickly with other alternatives waiting readily out there (the demise of another Hi5 and MySpace should never be impossible). And while I had hoped the "third" and "backup" social network would be independent rather than part of a company that has an economic size larger than certain countries (Diaspora could potentially become that as well), most such alternatives (like Plurk) are lagging behind considerably on technical, financial and other issues..

We need an alternative network to ensure that Twitter and Facebook never exercise unfair usage of their dominant positions in the market, to keep both of them in a continuous state of competition that would end up benefitting the market and the users, to give developers more than one source to market their apps and plugins, thus ensuring that they hold the upper hand (or at least significant batting power) vis-a-vis the networks. More critically, we need such a network because activists and writers need to make sure their capacity to broadcast and share information, sometimes of genuinely urgent nature, is never blocked by unfriendly governments muscling their economic powers over one company or the other. So, perhaps until a compelling alternative presents itself, perhaps we still need to make that occasional Google Plus post every now and then.

And no, sadly, I wasn't paid by Google to write this. But while you're at it, why don't you head over to Diaspora and sign up as well. Here's to, possibly, social network number 4.

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