The voyeurs of social media would have you believe that people want to connect with other people on an instinctive level, that humans are purely social animals. And who can prove them wrong? Mark Zuckerberg and his peer wunderkind have built the framework to our digital connections and we’re lured in again and again. We fill them with our thoughts, our relationships, our cereal choices. And it makes Google nervous.
Last week’s beta release of Google+ was a triumph for the company, whose history with social networking is one “almost” after another.
Orkut, Google’s first social network was a huge success … in Brazil. Released in 2004, the service failed to materialize a strong user base domestically and eventually, it seemed like Google just tired of it.
Meanwhile, Facebook thrived in Google’s blind spot. Born out of Harvard’s dorms, the site created a shadow web, a walled-up version of Internet activity that Google can’t read. Google+ is the company’s social fledgling designed to take on Facebook, or, to wipe the embarrassment off of its chin after previous failed attempts at entering the social stratosphere.
Social media isn’t really something Google saw as a priority until Facebook locked them out. Facebook activity – user information, shares, Likes – can’t be indexed, archived, or even sold against by Google. The Internet as seen through Google is now only a piece of the greater web story – and the company is scared.
In 2010, Facebook’s web consumption grew 69 percent, making the traditional, indexed Internet much less relevant. Within the last year, All Things Digital reported that Facebook’s share of users’ time online grew from one out of every 13 minutes of use in the U.S., to one out of every eight.
This took more than half a billion hours of use (more than 800 lifetimes) away from outside sites like Google. Ben Elowitz, founder and CEO of Wetpaint describes it well: “And here’s what’s different when you connect people, as opposed to pages: Now, the Web knows who we are (identity), is with us at all times wherever we go (mobile), threads our relationships with others (social), and delivers meaningful experiences beyond just text and graphics (video).”
This leaves impersonal, algorithm-focused Google an antiquated web relic of searches past.
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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.