Why Google + social networking = electric wok
A spectre is haunting the technology industry. It is called “electric wok syndrome” and it mainly afflicts engineers and those who invest in their fantasies. The condition takes its name from the fact that nobody in his or her right mind would want an electric wok. But because it is possible to make such things, they are manufactured, regardless of whether or not there is a need for them. The syndrome is thus characterised by the mantra: “Technology is the answer; now what was that question again?”
The past two weeks have seen a virulent outbreak of the syndrome. It was triggered by Google’s limited release of a new “service” calledGoogle+ which was widely interpreted as the search giant’s first serious foray into social networking. Initially available by invitation only to a select group of geeks and early adopters (which did not at first include this columnist), it has been the source of frenzied speculation in the blogosphere, not least because it implied that Google was finally getting ready to take on the 800lb gorilla of social networking, Facebook.
In its “limited field test” form, Google+ has five components: Circles, Hangouts, Instant Upload, Huddle and Sparks. The blurb explains that Circles allows you to assign your friends in an arbitrary number of “circles” – family, colleagues, poker buddies etc – “just like real life”. Hangouts brings “the unplanned meet-up to the web for the first time. Let specific buddies (or entire circles) know you’re hanging out and see who drops by for a face-to-face chat”. It is, apparently, “the next best thing until teleportation arrives”. (I am not making this up.) Instant Upload means that your pictures and videos upload automatically to a private album, ready for sharing. Huddle is group text-chat, which apparently will be very useful “when you’re trying to get six different people to decide on a movie”. And Sparks is some kind of RSS feed on steroids. “Tell Sparks what you’re into and it will send you stuff it thinks you will like.”
To read some of the excited commentary on these innovations you’d think that teleportation had actually arrived. Watching people salivate over Circles and, er, Hangouts helps to explain how the ancient Egyptians came to worship an insect. It also reminds one of the astonishing power that large corporations possess to create a reality-distortion field around them which, among other things, disables the capacity to believe that these organisations might sometimes do very silly things indeed. There was a time, for example, when Microsoft’s every move was greeted with the hushed reverence with which devout Catholics greet papal utterances. Grown men swoon whenever Steve Jobs appears in public. And it’s not that long ago since Google launched its incomprehensible “Wave” service (now defunct) and an idiotic venture called “Buzz” – things that excited geeks but left the rest of the world unmoved.
So the question du jour is whether Google+ is an electric wok or not. Initial reactions suggest that it is. First of all, it’s engagingly flaky so that even simple tasks such as setting up a user profile are formidably difficult, as my Guardian colleague Charles Arthur reported in his hilarious, and admirably acerbic, review in which he describes his attempts to create a profile and upload a photograph. “If Google were a start-up,” he concluded, “it would have lost precisely 99.999% of every would-be joiner. Getting photos uploaded is the most fundamental thing you have to be able to do and every start-up knows it.” He’s right: geeks and early adopters revel in difficulty; ordinary users abominate it. They like stuff that just works.
Charles Arthur’s experience is by no means unique. What it suggests is that Google+ is what software people call a “closed beta” – ie a release that is OK for techies but not suitable for normal people. And that’s fine. It will improve over time. But the thing about social networking is that it’s now a zero-sum game because it depends on a very scarce resource – its users’ time and attention. Facebook’s users already spend a lot of time on the site, time that won’t be available to Google+, no matter how slick its photo-upload process becomes.
Which is a pity, because Facebook needs some real competition. Last week, it announced some new features that look suspiciously like bits of Google +. And it let slip that it has reached 750 million users. It’s beginning to look like the winner that took all. Oh, and if you really want an electric wok, you can get one from Amazon. It even comes with a tempura rack and a spatula.