Google+ and the fear of a garden planet

Google+ is a social network that looks every bit as good as its competitors. But Google has introduced something far more audacious while we were distracted
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Two weeks into Google+, the search giant's most intensive attack yet on social networking, and the signs are very good.

With over 10 million users in the de-facto beta and many more eager to join, the buzz is positive. Google+ is very good at letting people read each other's messages while giving users the whip hand in deciding who sees what.

Not that there aren't reservations over usability, scaleability and security: the only proper test of a social network is to use it, as its behaviour depends more than any other service on the way humans feel and act. That behaviour will change as more people pile in. All the signs are they will, and in record numbers.

Google's black bar

Fortunately for analysts, the most immediately significant aspect of Google+ isn't in the social-networking side of Google+ at all. It's the black bar that now appears at the top of your browser window whenever you're logged in. For a graphic of a few thousand pixels and only 4KB or so in size, it's a work of considerable subtlety and portent.

It looks exactly like an ordinary menu bar, which has been with us since Bill Atkinson put one on Apple's Lisa in 1982. It's the single most familiar user interface component for the vast majority of users: our desktops, our applications and many of our web services use it, and it's so familiar it's effectively invisible. Now, Google has put one on the whole internet and tied it to Google's own approach to what we say, do and read there.

Most of the bar's menu titles are arranged in a seemingly obvious but perfectly tuned cadence of precedence that matches the importance we give our web usage: Gmail, Calendar, Documents, Photos, Reader... Only towards the end does Web appear, and here, of course, you find Google's search interface. Google+ itself has the kingpin position at the extreme left, but it's not there under its own title. In a clever piece of projection, your name is now the label for Google+ and, by implication, at the head of the whole internet.

(Incidentally, the Google+ habit of marking an account name by prefixing it with a + is a marvellous pun on many levels. In the C programming language, a + before a variable is called the pre-increment and means 'add one to the variable before doing anything else with it'. You are promoted before you do anything else, with Google+. And, in the traditions of the Anglican Church, +name is the normal way of writing the name of a bishop: not only are you promoted, you've been ordained into the Apostolic Succession. You don't get that with Facebook.)

With Google+ the layers of social media sit more comfortably on top of the rest of the internet.

The psychology of the design is one thing, but the implications go much deeper. The web itself has been turned into an application that seemingly runs under Google. That's entirely in keeping with the company's philosophy behind Chrome OS, and in tune with its basic business model that if you use the web, you're helping Google.

It's entirely different to the approach of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others, where the contents of the service are shielded from the web (in other words, from Google) and the web itself is something that exists outside the walled garden, to be plundered for content but not inhabited.

Towards a garden planet

With Google+ the layers of social media sit more comfortably on top of the rest of the internet. It's not a place beyond a wall; it's part of the scenery. If Facebook is a walled garden, then Google's environment is a garden planet.

This rebranding of the whole internet is audacious, logical and unassailable. For most of us, these days, the internet means the internet filtered through Google. The company has taken the opportunity to put more branding on top of that accepted perception and added a rather nifty social network in one go. In the process, it's made those innovations seem useful and non-threatening. No other company could do that.

For Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and the other pretenders to the throne, Google+ is a depressing reminder of how potent a competitor the Mountain View giant remains and how it's still able to set the rules. For users, Google is finding new ways to buy our attention through convenience, relevance and utility. As far as bargains with giant corporate entities go, this isn't one of the worst.

As for whether this leads to a stronger, healthier internet or a monoculture where bad things can happen without oversight or recourse: we can still click away — and with Google's Data Liberation policy, we can take our content with us. Faint comfort. The risk with the garden planet model isn't that we're prevented from escaping: it's that there's nowhere else to go.

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