Is Google+ a Worthwhile Social Network?

With the social network market dominated firmly by Facebook, pundits have wondered ever since the launch of Google+ why Google decided to get involved in a social networking venture entirely from scratch, years after its largest competitor had achieved a stranglehold over the market.

Google’s decision to launch Google+ was decided in large part on a firm adherence to the company’s philosophy of exceptionalism, that all aspects of the technology market are fair game for Google’s entry, and as long as Google has a market and capital to start a project, it can put out a product. Whether the project succeeds or fails is another story, which is often indifferent to Google’s goals and irrelevant to the range of other projects in which Google chooses to partake.

From the start though, the deck was stacked against Google+. Facebook has been on the social networking scene since Mark Zuckerberg founded the company in 2004, and the earliest work on Google+ started at least three years afterwards. Yet, Google+ is not all that Google claims it is. All of the recent questions surrounding Google+ point to something deeper that is tied intricately to Google’s long-term plans.

Thus, the most relevant question behind the young social network is not whether it will survive the birth pangs of an emerging social network or even whether it can seriously take on Facebook in the coming years. What really matters is this: What does Google+ do for Google?

In “It Knows,” a revelatory piece in the October 6 issue of the London Review of Books, Daniel Soar writes that this is not the first time that Google has released a product to considerable hype, only to reveal later that its intended purpose was to lay the groundwork for a future product. Google+ may be just another product in a long line of predecessors, operating at a loss and thereby confusing the technorati with its presence, but existing solely to provide Google with a real world laboratory for future product deployment.

By 2007, Google knew enough about the nature of search queries to be able to ready a phone-based U.S.-only directory inquiry service called GOOG-411, and “it was free, nifty, and widely used, especially because — unprecedented for a company that had never spent much on marketing — Google chose to promote it on billboards across California and New York State,” Soar writes. “People thought it was weird that Google was paying to advertise a product it couldn’t possibly make money from,” Soar writes, “by then Google had been known for doing weird and pleasing things.”

Is Google+ another GOOG-411, just another product in Google’s line-up of weird, semi-useful, oddly pleasing, but ultimately unusable technologies? The answer is still uncertain, but certainly it is obvious that the motivations for the release of Google+ have the potential to be more serious, because the extent to which Google+ reaches into our personal spaces in the attempt to collect information for the sole purpose of advancing Google’s project of technological exceptionalism is frightening.

It is possible, too, that Google executives have decided to put out Google+ simply out of obligation to Google’s vast pool of users, craving a social networking alternative to Facebook. (All of the thousands of Facebook users who migrated to Google+ in the days after Facebook announced its most recent face-lift surely will not protest).

Google+ asks for your information and a lot of it. While some features are surprisingly forward-thinking, such as offering an “other” alternative when selecting your gender upon creating your profile, Google+ has severe limitations too that show that Google itself is moving in the direction of creating and storing individual profiles for all of its users.

Was Google+ built solely as an identity service, to get more information from you so that Google can continue to provide improvements to the services it knows its customers rely on most heavily and which demand improvements and personalization most frequently: search, maps, and mobile integration?

The logic goes like this: If Google’s engineers are smarter than us and can predict technologies that today we cannot even imagine but know we will not only like but also use, shouldn’t we forgive them a few failed projects here and there?

It may be too early to tell the future of Google+, but it appears that Google has decided Google+, in one incarnation or another, will be with us for quite some time.

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