So far, it seems like Google+ is a worthy challenger to Facebook’s social throne. The reviews, the buzz, they’re all largely positive. But Google’s motivations for moving into the social game are far deeper than simply proving it could. There is less and less activity happening online that Google is able to see. Plus it’s the search behemoth’s attempt to win you back. This isn’t a battle for your attention, or even your personal information. It’s an all-out war over where you’ll be reading the Internet.
Before Facebook and rise of the social sharing, SEO was king. To be successful online in the last decade, sites had to play Google’s game. Publishers obsessed over keywords and search-friendly page names while Google’s spiders crawled. The only shadow was the darkweb, a vast, anonymous alt-Internet, a haven for pedophiles or hacker types. If it was worth seeing, it was indexed by Google. At least until a Harvard geek gave us the power to provide for ourselves.
The rise of Facebook is more than just a fundamental change in the way we use the Internet, it’s a collision of cultures. To Google, the Internet is a math-based life form. The company depends on its team of engineer hotshots who operate under the belief that algorithms can solve everything – the Google creed. It’s sheer brute force, but that doesn’t mesh with social nuances. Google is apprehensive to create or participate in anything that puts power in someone else’s hands. Competitors like Facebook and Twitter see the web as a people-based entity. There’s a war brewing between these two ideals, which means users may have to identify their personal “digital carbon” sooner than they think.
Thankfully, Zuckerberg’s social giant has one major flaw. Facebook has made waves in the past few years over user data and privacy gaffes, something the strategic-minded Google group is happy to exploit. “We are a platforms company,” Google’s SVP of Social, Vic Gundotra told Twit.tv. “We believe that the data belongs to the user.” Don’t believe him? With Data Liberation, users who choose to leave Google+ are able to export all of their data before they go, a not-so-subtle jab at Facebook.
So, welcome to the new, new social, a network of people dreamed up by a team of engineers. Not only has Google managed to finesse a workable social experience to fit around its classic algorithm-based web experience with Sparks, its interest aggregator, it’s managed to lure you back to Googleland, where you’re just a tab away from Gmail, Docs, News and, of course, search.
There’s no stopping the current transition from a computer-friendly web, which Google and its army of algorithms dominated, to a people-friendly web. But instead of remaining stuck on the outside, Google might have found its window just in time.
Still, it’s almost impossible to tell where this is really headed. Facebook and Google are competing spheres on a collision course. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen the web morph from this linear, cataloged file cabinet of information, to being partitioned by gated social sites.
And in the end, this might be actually be the worst part.
In some not-so-distant future, users may have to choose which Internet experience they want to view. Google and Facebook do not see the web in the same way, which means they present different portraits of the Internet as they continue to chase different goals. In the meantime, users have some trying on to do. Turns out, one perspective might not fit all.
Allie Townsend is a reporter and social media producer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @Allie_Townsend, on Facebook at Facebook/Townsend.Allie, or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.