The Embassy of Google

I really like Google+ for the most part (as much as I hate the name), and I find the interactions that I have there to be, on the average, much higher in quality than those I have over Facebook or Twitter. Part of that I know is because there just aren’t all that many people there, so there’s less noise in my individual feed, and those who are there are going to be, well, at least a little more like me: tech-enthusiast, early adopter, cultural geeks. I come across very little abuse or vitriol, and see almost none of the social signaling that is so prevalent, even defining, of the other platforms; the constant wearing one’s obviously-correct politics on one’s sleeve to show that one is on The Right Side of Things. On the whole, it’s calm, thoughtful discussion or commentary a given topic.

So why is that? Well, truth be told, it’s not that the political discussion I see on Google+ is somehow superior, but that it’s not really there at all. There’s not much in the way of social signaling of ideologies because that’s simply not what surfaces, and it’s not what I’ve chosen to have surfaced. Instead, I see a lot about tech and a bit about nerd culture. Perhaps if I followed (or in the G+ parlance, “circled”) more explicitly political individuals and groups I might see more of the eye-roll inducing things I find on Twitter, but I haven’t, so I don’t.

And thinking about it more, Google+ isn’t even really just about tech generally, but a particularly geeky view of tech. In other words, it’s a lot about things related to Google, at least at a secondary or tertiary level. It’s no coincidence that I became much more interested in Google+ when I first started using Android devices, lost interest in it when I moved back into an all-Apple ecosystem, and came back to it when I got back into Android. Google+ on Android is a fantastic place to read and talk about Google and Android.*

On This Week in Google on the TWiT network this week, Danny Sullivan of the site Search Engine Land made an astute observation, almost as a throwaway comment, but it stuck with me. He said:

Google+ is the Apple Store for Google.

Let me unpack why this is such an interesting thought.

I used to work at an Apple Store, and while there it became clear to me that while I’m sure Apple makes untold bazillions just off the in-person retail transactions that take place at its stores, these places serve a grander purpose.

Apple Stores are really Apple Embassies. Apple places these outposts in locations where human beings are already primed to spend money (malls, shopping districts, etc.), and in these locations they not only sell products but make the case for Apple as a whole. The employees are ambassadors and diplomats for Apple the quasi-nation-state, conducting negotiations, solving diplomatic crises, and establishing and building on relationships. I would bet you that the way Apple Stores have represented and delivered the message of the Apple brand has resulted in more revenue and growth than the raw sales of products that take place in those same stores. I can’t prove it, but I bet it’s true.

Google+ serves a similar purpose for Google, though unintentionally. It’s a meeting place for those who use and appreciate what Google does and its surrounding services and technologies. It creates a forum and meeting place that represents Google’s design aesthetic and preferred modes of communication, just as the Apple Stores do for Apple. It’s a walled garden, one that doesn’t interact particularly well with outside platforms, which is similar to Apple in a way, and actually an exception for Google generally, which usually makes a point of undergirding everything it possibly can across all of technology. And as for it being not a “real” place, it still works: Apple is about physical products, so it makes sense that its embassy is a brick-and-mortar retail location. It makes equal sense that Google, a software/cloud company, would have its embassy exist virtually, in a browser, in the cloud.

And while Apple likes its customers to give it a lot of money for its products, and is thus represented by a store, Google likes to give away its product, and instead consume its users data: opinions, interests, routines, etc., and so there is no monetary side to Google+.

So perhaps what might be best for Google+ is for its parent company to accept that it will never be a Facebook competitor, but that it does potentially serve an extremely valuable service as the Apple Store of Google. Perhaps it might have Google employees inhabit it specifically for the purpose of being available to users, maybe attach company-run tech support exchanges for help with Android, search, and other aspects of Google’s massive online existence. Perhaps the Play Store could be more directly integrated to the Google+ experience so that users could seemlessly purchase new content while its being discussed (or “plus–1’d”). If Google decides to embrace Google+ as its embassy, it might thrive in a whole new, and potentially more valuable way than they ever intended.


* I think it’s important to note that Google+ is also full of noise. Android-centric feeds and communities are chock full of pointless screenshots of home screens and launcher themes, there’s a lot of poorly-written garbage, and a lot of complaining about battery life and whether one’s Nexus device has gotten the latest software update with morally acceptable speed.

Angels in the iPod: Lawrence Krauss on TWiT

Physicist Lawrence Krauss was recently the guest on Triangulation, the interview program on the TWiT network. It’s one of those lovely convergences where science and skept0-atheism cross paths with tech media, so I thought it’d be a good thing to post here.

Content-wise, it’s fairly introductory stuff. If you follow Krauss’s science popularization work, you probably won’t get a whole lot new here. But host Leo Laporte is obviously enamored of his interview subject, and the conversation touches on some of what I try to cover here at iMortal, how technology and science are parts of our lives at a cultural level and at the level of personal meaning. They note that you can’t appreciate your gadgets unless you accept the science that makes them work, or as Leo puts it, there are no angels in the iPods. “If you reject science,” he says, “you reject everything that science has brought us.”

Abuse on Twitter: Humans Can’t Always Just “Brush it Off”

Image by Matthew Keys.
People being assholes online is hardly new, though awful people using Twitter as a kind of heat-seeking missile to hurt people has only lately begun to rise to the level of a mainstream conversation.

There seem to be three legs to this stool: The responsibilities of the perpetrators of Twitter abuse, what the target of the abuse is obliged to either tolerate or resist, and what Twitter itself ought to be doing.

For leg 1, the people who use Twitter (or any medium) to hurt people’s feelings, to scare them, to threaten them, the answer is clear, and we need not dwell on it. They should drop dead.

Let us assume, though, that they will disagree with me and continue to both live and use Twitter as a vessel for their vileness. We have left legs two and three.

To get at leg 2, I recommend a conversation had on this topic on This Week in Google between hosts Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, and Leo Laporte. Jarvis and Laporte, both of whom I admire very much, while sensitive to what (mostly) women endure online, seem focused on the idea of ignoring the abuse, blocking bad actors and not letting the harassment get to you, lest the bad guys win. (The exceptions Laporte makes are for actual threats of violence that warrant real-world intervention, and the kind of abuse that can harm his business, but that’s a different thing.)

It takes Trapani, however, to ground the conversation where I think it belongs, in the minds and perceptions of those who are not public figures, who have not signed up to be in the spotlight, and are human.

In the abstract, on paper, it sounds entirely reasonable to recommend simply brushing off the vitriolic spewings of idiots on Twitter. But as Trapani explains from her own experience when she first became a visible figure online, the utter onslaught of criticism, the “nitpicking” of every facet of her existence, was completely overwhelming. Again, she knows that she chose to be in this spotlight, and was able, over time, to become more or less inured to the attacks. But think of the countless (mostly) women on Twitter, especially now that the service is mainstream and not a geek/niche platform, who suffer the same level of abuse that a public figure might. Now tell me they should just brush it off.

Because we are humans, you see. It’s not enough to say we ought simply process the data and coldly weigh the costs and benefits of every action and then act for the optimal outcome. “Too much abuse? Block, put it out of your mind, and decide not to be affected.” It simply doesn’t work that way for human beings with feelings and memories and psychological baggage and hearts. When we’re attacked, either in person or through bits, we feel it, physiologically. We experience real emotions like fear, self-loathing, and depression. Whether the abuse is “genuine” or a real-world physical threat is beside the point. We’re not the computers.

I’ve felt fear from the Internet, and it’s the same feeling as fear in meatspace. And I’m not a real target, not like so many (mostly) women are. I can’t imagine turning that fear up by several orders of magnitude, just so I can be free to tweet.

So what ought the targets do? They ought to have a service that does a hell of a lot more to both be safe and feel safe.

This is leg 3: What Twitter ought to do about all this. Trapani and Jarvis both note that there simply must be algorithmic things that Twitter can implement to at least begin to create a safer online space. But to get a more concrete idea, I recommend a post by Danilo Campos titled, appropriately, “The Least Twitter Could Do.” He has some concrete ideas about the steps Twitter could take, such as allowing users to set an auto-block threshold for users with few followers, or blocking any account that a certain number of one’s friends have blocked. Campos says these are only “band-aids,” but they’d be something. And it’s not clear to me at all that Twitter has taken this seriously yet.

Hey, I get it, they’re Silicon Valley, libertarian, information-wants-to-be-free types. But again, we’re talking about people, not machines, not startup manifestos or mission statements. Twitter’s got its infrastructure, its platform, its cultural power, and lots of engineering talent and money. It now just needs to give enough of a damn.