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Making Google Smarter

The Wind is Beautiful

Originally uploaded by cplong11

Nicolas Carr’s article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, considers the impact new media technologies are having on human cognition. Although he recognizes the reciprocal nature of the human-technology relationship, he focuses primarily in that article on what technology is doing to our abilities to read, concentrate and comprehend.

But the human relationship with technology is fluid, reciprocal and dynamic, and the boundaries between human-beings and our technologies are porous, as Freud already recognized in speaking about humans as “prothetic gods.”
Technology does things to us as we do things with it, but we also do things to it as it does things with us.  
Issues related to the dynamic interaction between us and our technologies have been rendered poignant for me again as I begin to play with Google+. What strikes me most at this point, however, is how the Google culture of engineering has taken a decidedly humanistic turn, and in a potentially powerful way.
The rhetoric Google used to introduce Google+ reflects this humanistic approach. Vic Gundotra, Senior VP of Social at Google, told TechCrunch that Google+ was created to respond to the “basic human need” to connect with other people in a way that is less “awkward.” 
There are a number of features and design decisions that recognize that human insight and understanding enrich the technology.  Circles, to take the central example, is beautifully designed in a way that makes it fun and aesthetically pleasing to create different audiences of people with whom one might want to communicate. The design, however, is important because it invites us to teach our Google profile about the sorts of communities about which we care. In so doing, our profiles become more flexible in communicating diverse ideas to diverse groups.  Facebook groups offers this possibility as well, though in a less compelling and playful way.  By making circles central to Google+ and by making it fun, Google has recognized that it will get smarter only if it invites humans to teach it.
This recognition seems also to be at the heart of the +1 button which adds a social component to search in a way that is designed to take your personal views and ideas into consideration.  There are, of course, dangers in this insofar as it can serve to reinforce existing prejudices and positions; but used effectively, it can also serve to open new horizons of insight.
The Hangout feature of Google+ is rooted in a metaphor taken from the world of concrete human interactivity. The Hangout is set up like a kind of front porch on which one can sit and wait for others to join. The conversation is inherently dynamic, because the Hangout need not be “about” something specific nor is it even owned by the person who began it: it is simply an invitation to a circle of people saying I am here if you would like to talk and it can continue long after the initiator has left. 
It is striking, however, that Bradely Horowitz, Google VP for Product Management, has been using Hangouts to open discussions with anyone following him on Google+ as a way to receive feedback on the product or, presumably, to participate diverse conversations, the direction of which remains open.  This in and of itself is testimony to the fact that Google has recognized that the only way it will get smarter is by attending and responding to human insight and experience in a dynamic and reciprocal way.



    Excellent review.
    Understanding human interactions and needs is critical to a (or the next) successful social media site. As I was reading this I thought about a recent TED talk by Rebecca MacKinnon. A finely tuned social system or human centric system may raise issues with over-sight and control by industry and government. I don’t want to follow the path of a conspiracy theorist to far, and theses issues would exist with other social sites regardless of the engineering design philosophy, but does a more inviting and responsive environment make us more susceptible to the dangers mentioned in your post? Could we loose site of how we may be being manipulated? I guess it may be up to us to expand or narrow our perspective.
    On a more direct note I have been looking for an environment in which it is easy to manage multiple identities. It seems Google+ is close. The circles allow for more fluid control. It would be nice to be able to establish profiles & feeds for various circles. I think it would benefit the audiences rather than the user. For example my professional circles probably don’t care what my kids ate for dinner, but my family circle might. It would be nice to easily control the flow of updates, so the audiences are getting information that would be the most useful to them without cluttering their stream. I guess that is why I have kept Facebook and Twitter somewhat separate.
    The hangout feature seems to have great potential. Thanks for the post and insights on education and technology.

  • Sam Loewner says:

    Your comments about Vic Gundotra (and, of course, his comments to TechCrunch) are especially important. Google has adopted a new stance on social interactions. I’m not sure that Google+ is the perfect representation of their new view, but it is well positioned to grow into that ideal.
    I think one of our most enduring social experiences is what we can call the town square model. For centuries, humans gathered to talk publicly and privately in some culturally acceptable location. This is represented in every era from the Romans (the Forum) to today (the small town coffee shops where locals gather, for one example). We use this imagery in our political communication frequently – for good reason – because we can all identify with it. There are microcosms all over (at University Park, it’s the HUB; in my office, it’s a certain part of the cafeteria/lunchroom). How we translate that social experience into one that can endure longer and reach a greater number of people – through the internet – is a great concern.
    Networks have attempted to create parallels to this social experience. This is not likely to succeed over the long term. MySpace attempted to build its social experience around tools (the gadgets, applications, add-ons, etc). Facebook got closer by attempting to build its experience around information (what books do you like? what events are you attending?). They saw the successful model of the town square and wanted to create a new one that they thought would be more appropriate for the internet age. MySpace did not succeed. I suspect Facebook (even without Google+) is a finite entity as well.
    On the other hand, I think Google saw the town square and decided to do their best to translate that to the internet. Each Circle is a different conversation; each Huddle a different soapbox; each Sparks a different public lecture. The beauty of this approach is that it’s wide open. The metaphor of the town square makes sense: Google+ is (for now) a wide open arena where we, the human users, can adapt it to our needs. It’s not a new system; it’s an old system – that works – placed online. I find that tremendously appealing.
    Thank you for your post – I think your review is precise. I agree with your analyses of the features.

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