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Razib Khan
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Google+ Lags Far Behind Facebook, Twitter and MySpace in Latest Study:

Google+ became the fastest growing social network within months of its debut last June, but a recent study casts doubt on whether most of its users are spending much time on the site.

According to ComScore, users spent an average of just 3.3 minutes on Google+ in the month of January, a decline from its recent figures and a tiny sliver of Facebook’s total.

I accept the argument of friends that G+ and Facebook are fundamentally different, and that Google’s aim here is not to replicate Facebook. But I also think that this is well short of what Google was intending for G+ at this stage; otherwise they would surely have quashed the media bubble and hyperbole which crested last summer. G+ is obviously much better than Buzz. But that’s a low bar.

• Category: Science • Tags: Google, Technology 
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TechCrunch has a post up on the declining public usage of Google+. It’s been several months since I’ve been “using” Google+. I put usage in quotes because I am not a big active poster on twitter, Facebook, or Google+. But I do participate passively a fair amount. At this point for me I can say that Google+ is turning into a very different beast from Facebook. I have 70 people in a circle labeled “Friends,” but well over 700 in another labeled “Internet.” The latter category are those individuals who I basically don’t know, but usually know of me. Recall that I purposely limited the number of individual who I invited to Google+. So I’ve been passive the whole time. At this point I suspect that within ~3-4 months, at current rates, I will have more people in my Google+ circles than who follow me on twitter.

And remember, I raised the funds to defray the cost of a genotyping kit via Google+. That’s worth something. I didn’t get any response on twitter or Facebook. Why? I think because Facebook is strongly biased toward people who I know in real life, not all of whom share my obsession with personal genomics. My twitter followers exhibit a stronger concordance of interests, but still far less than those people who sought me out on Google+.

• Category: Science • Tags: Google, Technology 
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The prince of neurobloggers Jonah Lehrer has a good if curious column up at the Wall Street Journal, Social Networks Can’t Replace Socializing. He concludes:

This doesn’t mean that we should stop socializing on the web. But it does suggest that we reconsider the purpose of our online networks. For too long, we’ve imagined technology as a potential substitute for our analog life, as if the phone or Google+ might let us avoid the hassle of getting together in person.

But that won’t happen anytime soon: There is simply too much value in face-to-face contact, in all the body language and implicit information that doesn’t translate to the Internet. (As Mr. Glaeser notes, “Millions of years of evolution have made us into machines for learning from the people next to us.”) Perhaps that’s why Google+ traffic is already declining and the number of American Facebook users has contracted in recent months.

These limitations suggest that the winner of the social network wars won’t be the network that feels the most realistic. Instead of being a substitute for old-fashioned socializing, this network will focus on becoming a better supplement, amplifying the advantages of talking in person.

For years now, we’ve been searching for a technological cure for the inefficiencies of offline interaction. It would be so convenient, after all, if we didn’t have to travel to conferences or commute to the office or meet up with friends. But those inefficiencies are necessary. We can’t fix them because they aren’t broken.

First, let me offer up that if I had to pick between my twitter, Facebook, or Google+, I’d pick the last. At this point twitter is better in my opinion at allowing me to “sample” from the stream of news/links than Google+, where people tend to be more verbose. In contrast if I want to see how cute the babies of my college friends are getting to be, Facebook all the way. But the conversations on Google+ are much better when it comes to people I may interact with today, rather than the past. Facebook keeps me up to date on my past, and twitter tells me what the wider world is concerned with, but Google+ is the best complement to my present social life (which, to be fair, is not typical because of my quasi-public existence).

All that being said, some of you might wonder why Jonah even would be allowed to write such a banal column. Doesn’t everyone know that social networking technologies are not going to change our need for physical contact? No, everyone doesn’t know. There are pundits who are asserting the revolutionary transformative nature of the social web. As Jonah observes this has come and gone many a time. Remember Second Life?

I do have friends in real life who contend that Facebook and company many actually allow us to shatter Dunbar’s number. I am skeptical. The reason is that our cognitive natures are not universally plastic.

We’ve got great general domain intelligence in comparison to other species. Even though it is slow and laborious in comparison to our innate cognitive toolkit, it is incredibly flexible and extensible. Technologies which amplify the power of domain general intelligence are game changers. Writing and digital computers are examples of such extenders. The decline of the art of memory and slide rule illustrates the power of this sort of technology to be progressive. What was indispensable in the past is quickly forgotten, and shown to be the utility it always was (I suspect many of you don’t know what a slide rule is, despite its ubiquity two generations ago!). In this there is a resemblance toward science.

In contrast, consider something like sexual technology. The verisimilitude of visual pornography is incredible (in fact, sometimes too good insofar as make-up artists on porn sets are having a harder and harder time covering up blemishes and imperfections). There is an enormous industry of sex toys, and sex dolls are getting better and better. Obviously there’s a huge demand for such products and services. But will these ever possibly replace real sex? Imagine a near future sex doll with artificially generated body temperatures and synthesized human skin. Even without this some people are claiming that porn is substituting for real sexual relationships.

Such a substitution will not happen in the near future. That’s because our pleasure, our utility, of experience derives not just from its pure sensory input, but also our model of its essential nature. We have not only beliefs, but also aliefs. The knowledge that you’re having sex with a human being counts for something in and of itself. The knowledge that you own the original painting counts for something. The knowledge that a book was once owned by someone famous counts for something. We have deeply ingrained preferences which are not simply dependent on the substance or style of something. There are part of a broader constellation of our understanding of the world.

Jonah correctly points out that communication via social technologies don’t transmit a lot of implicit and subtle cues which you can obtain through sensory input face to face. That’s a matter of substance. But ultimately people will put a premium on face to face interaction even when teleconferencing technology becomes much better at transmitting sensory information. That’s because humans are social beings, and to a great extend socialization in the proximate sense (as opposed to evolutionary) is not a means, but an ends. We enjoy spending time with flesh and blood humans beings. The only way this will change is through a deep re-write of low level cognitive code.

Addendum: The above generalizations are relevant for most, but not all, human beings.

• Category: Science • Tags: Cognitive Science, Facebook, Google, Technology, Twitter 
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I am only being added to Google+ “circles” at a clip of half a dozen per day. This is off the peak of nearly 20 or so per day a little over a week ago. I’m now at nearly 500 people in my Google circles, though only 5 were individuals whom I added proactively. I honestly have no idea who 2/3 of these people are, though it seems that most of them know me through my blogs. About ~75 people I know rather well, though fewer than 50 are people who I’ve met in real life (many of these only once or twice). In contrast on Facebook there are hundreds of people I’ve met and known and know in real life. Very few of my college or high school friends have “added me” to their circles. In contrast, the people who I am socially engaged with currently have added me. It’s like Google+ is a vast and shallow circle extending outward into my present social space, both explicit (people I know) and implicit (those who know me through my web presence). In contrast Facebook has more historical depth. Though it’s been around a lot longer too, so the comparison isn’t fair.

Meanwhile, Google+ has hit a major snag with their “real names” policy. If there’s one thing that Facebook has learned, it’s that you better be responsive after a major mistake. After a few weeks of Google+ I think most people agreed that Google “got” the social web. But at this point I’m not so sure. I don’t have a major opinion about their policies, but their public relations hasn’t been optimal.

Finally, I have to add that right now my Google+ “stream” is far more dynamic and value-added than my Facebook wall. There’s way more commentary and response. That’s partly a function of the excitement over the new platform, but I wonder if circles has energized many people. I’m not a major user at this point, but I have used Google+ in a way I wouldn’t have on Facebook because of the ease of narrow-casting.

• Category: Science • Tags: Facebook, Google, Technology 
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Over the past few weeks I’ve seen several media stories profiling the rise of Google+ by noting that hoopla also greeted Google Wave and Google Buzz before their expiration as “It” technologies. This caveat was probably more true for Google Wave, which heralded the revolution which no one seemed anxious for (“what if we designed email now?!?!?!”). Buzz was a public relations disaster from its inception. When I first posted on Google+ I asserted that it was not in the same category as Wave or Buzz, and that was in a good way. By that, I meant that taking Google+ for a test drive I thought I’d stick around for at least a bit. I didn’t get that sense with Wave, and proactively shut down Buzz in my Gmail account. But that’s an N of 1, me. Over the past few weeks though friends have been joining Google+, and real conversations have been starting. I’ve consciously avoided adding anyone to my Google+ circle proactively, rather I have been reciprocally adding them. I’m at 300+ now. Right now the people in my circles are much closer in profile to my twitter account than my Facebook. That’s probably not typical, as I am a quasi-public individual (looking at who I share in common with those I’m adding to my circles it seems that some of my journalist friends and acquaintances are replicating their twitter followings as well, and that’s how people are finding me).

In any case, I have some non-anecdotal data that Google+ is not replicating the paths of Wave of Buzz. Google Trends. It’s early yet, so I don’t think that Google+ has “peaked” in terms of news or search by any means (if it’s successful), but it’s already surpassed the other two offerings:

(recall that Buzz’s spike in news volume had a lot to do with its huge privacy failures, so it wasn’t good news)

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- I have invited 5 people to the service (as per their requests). And yet I have 163 people in my circles. Right now the rate of people adding me to their circles is increasing.

- At least half the people I don’t even recognize at all. Most of these are obviously people who know me from the blogs I’m associated with in some capacity judging by people we have in common. A grand total of 1 person is someone I know from high school, and this individual I actually got to know much better at university. Otherwise, people I recognize and know tend to be bloggers and my friends in “real life” currently, topped off with a few friends from college. In contrast, Facebook is stacked with a lot of my friends and acquaintances from high school (as well as random people I met at conferences over the years or something).

- I still don’t know how to really use the service or see any strong components of functionality which gives it a comparative advantage over Facebook besides the relative transparency of circles vs. Facebook groups and lists.

Right now I’d say that Google+ does very little, but what it does it does smoothly. Facebook does a lot, but much of the implementation is kludgy. But for someone like me I think Google+’s future role may actually be to replace twitter, judging by how many people who I vaguely recognize only from twitter!

• Category: Science • Tags: Google, Technology 
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There’s an amusing story up at The New York Times on the activity surrounding Mark Zuckerberg’s Google+ account. Zuckerberg is of course just scoping out the competition. Here’s the heartening part:

So far, Google’s new social service has generated positive comments from those with early access, in a turnabout from Google’s earlier attempts to woo the masses with social services like Wave and Buzz, which were met with lackluster responses and concerns over privacy.

Stephen Shankland, a writer for the technology news service CNet, said that Circles, a feature that lets people sort their friends into groups for more private sharing, was “the biggest improvement, far and away, over Facebook.” Adam Pash, a blogger at Lifehacker, described the service’s Hangout feature, which lets people video chat with as many as 10 friends simultaneously, as “the best free video chat we’ve seen.”

Even Tom Anderson, a co-founder of MySpace who was famous for being every MySpace user’s first “friend,” weighed in on his Google+ page, saying the service “does seem like it could take a bite out of Twitter.”

“We’re in the early days of making the Web more social, and there are opportunities for innovation everywhere,” said Jonny Thaw, a spokesman for the company.

Remember the “browser wars” of the late 1990s? To a great extent they were a media concoction. They gave rise both to “Netscape Time,” and the bloated piece of junk which was the Netscape Communicator of 1998. And yet the competition did push innovation and create a better product for the consumer. This was clear in the early 2000s when Internet Explorer had a de facto monopoly, and the browser and the web went into a period of technological stagnation. The emergence of Firefox woke Microsoft from its slumber, though at this point it might never catch up on the non-mobile web. The newest version of IE is alright, but IE share of the market keeps declining.

• Category: Science • Tags: Facebook, Google, Technology 
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Google Circles knockoff hits Facebook courtesy of unofficial plug-in:

…Circle Hack is a self-described “one-night experiment with Javascript” created by a few Facebook engineers in a non-affiliated capacity, which unofficially brings Google Circles-like functionality to the top social network. The creators of the Facebook plug-in have borrowed liberally from Google on this one (turnabout is fair play, perhaps)….

This is great. At a minimum Google+ could become like the Chrome browser. It might not attain a dominant market share position (though Chrome already has a higher share than IE on this site, and others, with a tech-savvy audience), but it could push the edge of innovation. I don’t have a problem with Facebook, but with the collapse of MySpace years ago it has had a de facto monopoly in the general social networking space.

Finally, an anecdatum: a friend noticed that six of his contacts deactivated their Facebook accounts in the past few days. He didn’t know why, but there’s a high probability that these may be the types who just want to start over like Ezra Klein suggested.

• Category: Science • Tags: Facebook, Google, Technology 
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Google+ for the Blogger and Researcher:

After a couple days of playing with it, I haven’t quite identified what it is for, or at least how I’m going to use it differently from twitter or facebook, but so far I am generally impressed – it’s easy, intuitive, and fast. It also allows you a level of selective privacy that – while possible to achieve – is very clunky on Facebook. It only took me 10 minutes on the web interface and another 10 minutes after downloading the Android app to figure out how it all worked. And Google+ is already far better integrated into the mobile user experience than Facebook is (though this is to be expected for a phone that runs Android).

Yes. I haven’t used Google+ much, but:

1 – The user experience is manifestly superior to Facebook’s still. Interaction with the UI is more fluid and natural. Again, this may be due to the fact that it can be superior because the user base is small. No idea.

2 – The circles are great. My Facebook requests I mentally put into two categories. One category are people who I recognize immediately. I know them. Another category are people I’m vaguer on in terms of details (often they’re readers who don’t comment much, etc.). With circles I waste a lot less time being confused. If I don’t know you well, I put you in the acquaintances circle. Period.

3 – The Google+ Android app is very good. Much better than what I have for Facebook.

Then again, I haven’t really utilized Google+’s features too much, I’ve just accepted people who make friend requests. Lots of the comments I see in my stream are to the effect of “hey, can Google+ do this?”

• Category: Science • Tags: Google, Technology 
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I’ve been playing around with Google+ a little today. Farhad Manjoo no like, More Like Google Minus:

… First, I don’t know whom the company thinks it’s kidding; Google+ is obviously a direct competitor to Facebook. Given the large overlap in functionality, I can’t imagine that many people will use Google+ and Facebook simultaneously. For most of us, it will be one or the other. Google+’s success, then, will rest in large part on Google’s ability to convince people to ditch Facebook for the new site. For that, Google+ will have to offer some compelling view of social networking that’s substantially different from what’s available on Facebook. And that’s where Google+ baffles me. What is so compelling about Google+ that I can’t currently get on Facebook or Twitter? Or Gmail, for that matter? At the moment, I can’t tell….

But circles are nothing new. Facebook has offered several ways to break your network into smaller chunks for many years now, and it has worked constantly to refine them. And you know what? Almost no one uses those features. Only 5 percent of Facebookers keep “Lists,” Facebook’s first attempt for people to categorize their friends. Recognizing that “Lists” weren’t great, last year the site unveiled a new way to manage your friends, called “Groups.” I was optimistic that “Groups” would help to compartmentalize Facebook, but from what I can tell, few people use that feature, either.

Since Google+ is not “prime time” I’m not going to judge it too much. The interface feels a lot zippier and more fluid than Facebook’s, but that might just be because there are hundreds of millions of people using Facebook. Unlike Manjoo I do think that the idea of “circles” is not without merit. I tried Facebook’s Lists, and it just plain didn’t work the way it was supposed to work, so I gave up. Right now I, along with others, slice and dice my online voice across different platforms. twitter for public interaction, Facebook for semi-public interaction.

When you have friends you know through science blogging, transhumanism, right-wing politics, high school, not to mention cousins who were raised in the Tablighi subculture, Facebook’s one-size-fits-all tendency of throwing them into a big pot has been kind of suboptimal. Then again, most people probably don’t manifest as much dilettantism as I do, leading them to have a much more well “sorted” social set.

I will say though that Google+ doesn’t seem as patently useless as Wave and Buzz were. But if you haven’t gotten an invite, you aren’t missing out on much. There is no way this should warrant the hysteria which was the norm when Gmail first rolled out and required invites.

• Category: Science • Tags: Facebook, Google, Technology 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"