Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The New Digital Age and why Google+ makes absolute sense

I’m currently ploughing through The New Digital Age, a roadmap for the future of the internet, from Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. To be honest, I’d not heard anything about the book, putting my hand in my wallet due to the strength of the names on the jacket.*

As you’d expect of a book from such a pair, there’s lots of stuff to chew over; the chapters about the emergence of a two-tier internet or the increasing role of the state in governing the online space are excellent. And while I initially struggled through the first chapter, which read a bit like a wet dream wishlist from a Tomorrow’s World episode, the book eventually finds its footing, offering a nice insight into the future as seen by the leading minds at Google.

If you read between the lines, it also gives a bit of a glimpse into Google's plan for the future; how the company might expand its product portfolio to accommodate new digital trends.

Based on these thoughts, Google+ makes absolute sense.

At the moment, Google+ is a bit like the Milton Keynes of the internet. On paper, it’s a perfect social network. It’s usable, intuitive and looks smashing (the updated iPhone app is a treat). But it’s a bit of a joke. No one really uses it to the extent they use Twitter or Facebook and the platform is frequently ridiculed as another attempt by Google to get on the social media bandwagon. But, having read Schmidt’s and Cohen’s predictions for the evolution of the internet, I’m not so sure. I don’t think Google+ is a social network for right now. It’s a platform designed to accommodate how we'll use the internet in two, five, or ten years (at least in two regards). Let me explain:

Schmidt and Cohen spend a lot of time writing about the future of online user behaviour. The increasing desire for individuals to have more control over the content they consume is a Big Thing for them.

The pair see more personalisation in their crystal ball; a desire for users to create an in-tray of news and opinions, addressing specific interests, without having to filter through irrelevant noise.

And Google+ does this very well. Within its circles format, users can syphon individuals into specific groups. If I want technology news, I’ll go to that circle. If I want local news, I’ll go to the section labelled ‘Manchester’. Facebook and Twitter are a constant stream of content; television mixed with breaking news, mixed with pictures of cake. It’s noisy. And unless I choose to spend a six hours of my life filtering everyone into lists, I can’t influence what content gets priority. Google+ addresses this problem of information overload (an issue I see becoming more and more prevalent as the online world gets bigger and noisier).

The book also comments on the developing demand for authenticity; for individuals to be transparent about their identity and motivations. There’s an interesting point on page 33 about search engines (and governments) turning to online identity verification in order to reduce the number of anonymous, ‘unseen’ commentators. Being unseen in the future, Schmidt and Cohen argue, will be bad for your career prospects, your educational choices and your credit rating.

To pull a quote from the book:

‘The true cost of remaining anonymous ,then, might be irrelevance; even the most fascinating content, if tied to an anonymous profile, simply won’t be seen because of its excessively low ranking...Identity will be the most valuable commodity for citizens in the future and it will exist primarily online.’**

The integration between Google+ and other services from the company offers a glimpse into the small steps Google is already taking in order to verify your identity, tying up profiles with a host of other services such as YouTube or Blogger, as well as using the platform to influence search ranking placement. The fact that Google+ is so publicly linked to your email address (which accepts a mobile number for verification during set up), is a glimpse at how the company is pushing us towards a more transparent way of existing online.

Food for thought.

No mention of hoverboards, though.
*There’s also a quote from Richard Branson on the back cover, if that’s the kind of thing that influences your purchasing behaviour.

**It’s worth noting there’s currently a setting on Google Dashboard that allows you to show the search results for your own name.