Google+, the new social network from the search giant, is only a month old, but it’s already been declared a big success. So far there have been more than 20 million unique visitors, sharing nearly one billion items every day. Analysts have dubbed it a potential “Facebook killer.” Why do we need yet another social network?
The main selling point of Google+ is the way it attempts to mirror the reality of our offline social life. (The tagline for the network is “Real-life sharing, rethought for the Web.”) Unlike previous social networks, which have been created from primitive digital platforms—such as listservs, message boards, blogs and even the Harvard Facebook—Google wants to start from scratch. It wants Google+ to be the first online space that’s based on the enduring habits of human nature.
The design of Google+ reflects this lofty ambition. While Facebook lumps together all of our “friends” in a single feed, Google+ makes it easy to sort contacts into discrete circles, so that colleagues at work and buddies from college get different updates.
The new social network also makes it easier for groups to interact. The Hangout feature, for instance, lets users communicate in video chats, as if they were sharing an actual physical space. Google+ even requires people to use their real names, instead of the pseudonyms that are so prevalent online. The hope is that these software tweaks will make the site feel more realistic, more like a dinner party and less like a listserv.
It’s far too early to say whether or not Google+ will stick around. Personally, I’ve enjoyed my time on the site, largely because the lack of anonymity encourages a less caustic conversation.
But there is good reason to question whether any new technology—even one as well designed as Google+—can effectively imitate our face-to-face interactions. There’s a long history of such claims, and none of them has panned out.
First there was the telephone, which was supposed to reduce demand for communication in person. The same was said of faxes and then email. In the late 1990s, when dot-com fever was at its peak, many technology enthusiasts predicted that cities would soon become obsolete, since we no longer needed to share sidewalks and cafes. Cheap bandwidth would mean the end of expensive office space.
But the data show that the opposite has occurred: Cities and face-to-face interaction have become even more valuable. As Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, notes in his recent book “The Triumph of the City,” business travel has dramatically increased since the invention of email. Attendance at business conferences has spiked since the invention of video-conferencing. Businesses still pay hefty rents to be downtown.
A similar lesson emerges from a recent study led by Isaac Kohane, a researcher at Harvard Medical School. After analyzing more than 35,000 different peer-reviewed papers and mapping the location of every co-author, he found that scientists located closer together produced papers of significantly higher quality, at least as measured by the number of subsequent citations. In fact, the best research was consistently done when scientists were working within roughly 30 feet of each other—that is, when they didn’t need to interact via screens.
This doesn’t mean that we should stop socializing on the web. But it does suggest that we reconsider the purpose of our online networks. For too long, we’ve imagined technology as a potential substitute for our analog life, as if the phone or Google+ might let us avoid the hassle of getting together in person.
But that won’t happen anytime soon: There is simply too much value in face-to-face contact, in all the body language and implicit information that doesn’t translate to the Internet. (As Mr. Glaeser notes, “Millions of years of evolution have made us into machines for learning from the people next to us.”) Perhaps that’s why Google+ traffic is already declining and the number of American Facebook users has contracted in recent months.
These limitations suggest that the winner of the social network wars won’t be the network that feels the most realistic. Instead of being a substitute for old-fashioned socializing, this network will focus on becoming a better supplement, amplifying the advantages of talking in person.
For years now, we’ve been searching for a technological cure for the inefficiencies of offline interaction. It would be so convenient, after all, if we didn’t have to travel to conferences or commute to the office or meet up with friends. But those inefficiencies are necessary. We can’t fix them because they aren’t broken.