Google comes up with its version of Facebook. But first, what prompts us to join social networks?
This week, a few soaps on TV introduced an extramarital-affair twist. There were also several traffic jams in Bangalore. And someone launched a new social-networking platform. So on a scale of unremarkableness, this would rank somewhere between the Trivandrum-Guwahati train arriving several hours late and Arnab Goswami interrupting someone in a TV debate. But when that someone is Google, people tend to give pause. Google after all has made that critical cultural shift from being a proper noun to a verb.
But barring search (and slightly relevant ads on the right column of your Gmail), the smart chaps from Mountain View, California, have had quite a few-high profile duds in the last couple of years. They first announced Google Wave, a product that was going to be so revolutionary that kids around the world were going to dump their Che T-shirts. But Google Wave was so spectacularly impressive that no one quite knew how to use it. Everybody felt that any sort of mundane day-to-day use was too, um, mundane for the ubercool Wave. So in the end, no one used it and it became like one of those expensive reclaimed islands that Dubai tries to sell to celebrities around the world.
Then came Google Buzz, a radically new sharing platform that suffered from one fatal flaw. It shared way too many things with folks people did not want to share those things with. It promised greater privacy control than Facebook and went on to literally open the doors to our privies. So when Google announced Google + this week, there was a curious mixture of reactions. Since I belong to the “I’m so tech-savvy that I’m really looking forward to a Facebook alternative” crowd, I was interested in finding out if Google had managed to do something new, refreshing and importantly, more open than the walled-garden-with-military-level security that’s Facebook.
But this is not a review of Google +, for one important reason. I haven’t tried it out yet. I wanted to think about what it is that makes people join social networks or shift from one to another. The promise of Orkut (and later, Facebook) for most Indians was twofold. One, it helped us discover long-lost friends from school and college. The incredible desire to locate that atrociously annoying bully from school and let him know that you now take vacations in the Seychelles is one of the most compelling reasons to sign up to a social network. It’s the world’s biggest “mine is bigger” shout-out platform and you can show off from the comfort of your smartphone, your laptop and heck, even aboard the International Space Station.
The second reason to use a social network is to examine the broad range of pulchritude on display. Everyone makes sure that they upload the most flattering, smoothened (with Photoshop) photos that make us look 10 years younger than we are. Quite conveniently, no social network forces us to display our year of birth.
So my aim this week is to find out if Google + offers me better tools than any one else for the digital upkeep of my self-esteem. If it helps me locate more fawning friends who “like” my updates and lets me craft a more subtly pompous online identity, I will shift. Otherwise, I’ll quickly join the “Meh, Google-has-lost-it brigade” and write snarky columns about how they’ve lost the social networking plot.