A quick look at the history books shows social networking is a volatile business. Friends Reunited, the site that linked one-time acquaintances by resurrecting old school registers online, now resembles a barren wasteland in a dark corner of the Internet. Its successor, the phenomenon that was Myspace, continues to stutter towards the same fate, having gone through two takeovers (which resulted in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp losing around £300m) and a series of rebranding attempts, none of which could halt its decline. But Facebook, with its 750 million users, is surely too big to join its predecessors in online limbo, isn't it?
The demise of each social networking trailblazer has been helped along by the emergence of the next, sleeker platform building on the discoveries made by those that came before. With that in mind, Mark Zuckerberg could be forgiven for feeling a little queasy about the launch of online giant Google's latest project: Google Plus.
At just one month old, Google Plus is estimated to already have around 20 million users, hugely outperforming both Facebook and Twitter's initial growth, and a survey carried out by PCMag shows fifty percent of the six thousand participants plan to ditch Facebook in favour of the new platform. So what's all the fuss about?
Many of the features are borrowed from Zuckerberg's cyber kingdom, but aesthetically, Google Plus is a cleaner, minimalistic version without the clutter of farms, mafia gangs, and for now, advertising. 'Circles' allow you to divide contacts into different groups depending on what you want to share with whom, meaning the site has the potential to be used in both the up close and personal fashion of Facebook, and at arm's length, a la Twitter.
Yet the ability to mould both Twitter and Facebook into one site performing both functions less well isn't enough to explain the effortless vogue of Google Plus. Something more is going on.
Google has been a master class in branding. The colourful logo looks more like something from the Early Learning Centre than the emblem of a corporation with revenues of $29.3 Billion in 2010. The name (taken from 'googol' - a number with one hundred zeroes) sounds like the noise a baby might make being tickled, and even the company's slogan: 'Don't Be Evil', is designed to promote an innocent, benign image. But should we be more wary of helpful, cuddly Google?
Andy Gove, former CEO of the Intel Corporation, described Google as "a company on steroids, with a finger in every industry", and the late Tom Lantos, formerly a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, said, "Google, Microsoft and Yahoo should be developing new technologies to bypass government sensors and barriers to the Internet; but instead, they agreed to guard the gates themselves."
A similar lack of 'barriers' between online searches and the white spaces on Google Plus, where adverts will inevitably appear, points to a disquieting capability bestowed on Google through its move into social networking. 'Single' users of Facebook will be familiar with adverts for dating sites, while other pieces of information volunteered via statuses often provoke adverts tailored to what Facebook thinks you are interested in.
For Facebook though, this insight is limited to clues displayed within the site. Google on the other hand, has access to masses of information from its myriad of domains, most obviously though searches on Google itself. And with that omniscience comes a sinister intent that would make even George Orwell shudder. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last year, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt said, "I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."
Talking about the future of individually targeted advertising in the same interview, Schmidt envisages, "the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them."
At a time when social networking has proved decisive in reining in corrupt media conglomerates through pressurizing advertisers, the potential for the world's largest media company to be the powerhouse in media, advertising and social networking, ought to be of obvious, ominous concern. Over the last year, both Twitter and Facebook have been utilised in combating unethical capitalist forces and despotic regimes.
If Google Plus takes over as the dominant social network, the Internet's 'gatekeepers' would have control over an effective tool for cutting through gates of power, as well as a formidable media empire. In that scenario, an emerging form of democracy would be handicapped, if not lost.
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