Via Techcrunch’s Erich Schonfeld, Google appears to be moving towards turning iGoogle into its own social network. As Google is notoriously ham-fisted in this space, I worry that a move to appease a VP may undermine the well-executed and popular iGoogle product.
Before you write this off as another Google rant, lets step back for a second. Google, for all its success, is constrained in the social space by a unique problem: its success. There is no entity more central on the web, and as a result of that, Google touches almost all of us. You might think this makes for the ultimate social opportunity, but experience teaches us differently.
On the web, our favorite social spaces are cultivated. We enter new social places with expectations of social interaction, understanding that we’ll have to build a network. We “train” – learning the network with a small cluster of trusted friends, and as norms evolve and culture sets, we expand and integrate into the network. This is a critical learning process, one that can’t be taught after the fact.
Google faces two problems socializing their properties. First, Google owns enormous contact lists. Google has our emails, our hyperlinks, our readers, our clickstreams: they know who we’re close to more than anyone else. Therefore, they’re uniquely able to pre-populate our contact lists and incite sociality. Of course, pre-populated contact lists are the death of meaningful social experience, but that will be a hard sell to a VP sitting on petabytes of mined social network data. This echoes my critique of the ideology of “social network portability”.
Second, we’ve established boundaries with Google properties. While Google knows that Gmail and Search and Reader are all the same thing, we don’t. These products aren’t social; when our friends are revealed and behavior shared, this will change how we feel about these products. Identical to Facebook’s Beacon, Google faces a terrible tradeoff in unifying users across properties; while the move will provide fuel for the social experience, it will also drastically change our sense of boundaries and privacy in Google properties.
At present, Google has only rolled out built-in networking in development mode; this is a wise choice. They must now decide what they want from their efforts. If they want real sociality, they must make a hard decision to only provide tools and let the networks grow organically. If they simply want to introduce social features for publicity, they stand to poison a key product.