Saturday, November 1, 2008

The social web: All about the small stuff

The Internet has had an enormous impact on people's lives around the world in the ten years since Google's founding. It has changed politics, entertainment, culture, business, health care, the environment and just about every other topic you can think of. Which got us to thinking, what's going to happen in the next ten years? How will this phenomenal technology evolve, how will we adapt, and (more importantly) how will it adapt to us? We asked ten of our top experts this very question, and during September (our 10th anniversary month) we are presenting their responses. As computer scientist Alan Kay has famously observed, the best way to predict the future is to invent it, so we will be doing our best to make good on our experts' words every day. - Karen Wickre and Alan Eagle, series editors

What makes two friends feel "close" to one another? I'd argue that a big part of it is the small details that you know about each other. The funny comment your friend made about a billboard they saw while driving down the road, what they had for dinner, a person they ran into on the street, their comments about the movie they saw two nights before. Closeness often comes from knowing the small things, not just the big things. Distance makes knowing those small things harder. When you live together, either with your family or your friends, knowing the small things is easy. They get conveyed when passing in the hall, sitting down to a meal or just hanging out. It's effortless.

When you live apart, things change. Suddenly it takes effort. It used to take a lot more effort when writing a letter was the primary way to communicate over distance as opposed to email or IM or telephone. But, even with our current technology, it still takes work. As a result, we share less with our friends. And when we do share, we tend to share the big stuff (big shifts at work, major family events like birthdays or school milestones) and leave the small stuff behind. We start to feel less connected because we don't know the details.

The promise of the social web is about making it easy to share the small stuff -- to make it effortless and rebuild that feeling of connectedness that comes from knowing the details. My wife recently sent out a public Picasa Web Album of baby photos to ten of her friends. Four of them wrote back saying "I didn't know Joe got a new car?!" (her friends browsed through my other public photo albums). While she would never hesitate to share the big event (new baby), she never would have shared the small detail of me getting a new car. This kind of thing is repeated again and again. The small details are left out. A weekend with Grandma and Grandpa? Thinking about selling my house? Are these things all "worth" sharing? Maybe. Sometimes. For some people.

Fortunately, as the web becomes more social, I won't have to spend as much energy thinking about what's "interesting enough" to share with a certain group. The people who care about me and that I allow will increasingly be able to tune in to the parts of my life that interest them.

It will be great when the instant I think of something to tell my friends, or something I need from my friends, they're available to me in some way. Remember when Google embedded IM into Gmail, and you could suddenly see -- without changing applications -- that the friend you were about to email was online and easily reachable right at that second? That little green bubble of presence right in front of our eyes brought a little extra ping of closeness that email hadn't had until then. That was in 2006, at the start of the AJAX-powered wave of dynamic web apps. Now, many sites and services are adding even more sophisticated plumbing (like profiles and friends and presence and comments) that brings the immediacy of social interaction to more and more places on the web. Reaching your friends can be really active, as IM is today, or it can be passive, like changing your status message.

In the coming decade, the web will become as effortlessly social as chatting with your family or roommates at home is today. Social features will be embedded and around and through all variety of spaces and places on the web. Sometimes you'll go to a place because you want to see your friends, and sometimes the place you're in will get better because you can bring your friends there. It will make it easier to strike up new relationships, new communities, new expressions of what your life is about. The web will connect people to the small moments that in many ways matter most.

We're just now starting to navigate all the intersections between sociology and engineering on the web. We -- meaning Google and many others in the web community -- are in the midst of a burst of energy around all things social that is teaching us more every day about what people want to do with their friends and where. How does iGoogle or Gmail get more powerful when you've got your friends present in some new way? What is possible on mobile devices when you can put better data about you and your friends in your pocket? What are the big plumbing problems -- like contact portability, or standards for user authentication and authorization -- that need to be solved for the whole web because no one site can do it on its own?

Google is chipping in on all of these fronts, listening closely to our users to make our existing products more social in useful ways, and by working with the web community on software projects like OpenSocial and OAuth to address some of the big infrastructure challenges that are best solved in the open, with the perspective of many developers and website owners represented. Fast forward ten years, and you'll feel even more at home on the web more than you do today - because it will be a pretty good reflection of you.

Link - from The Official Google Blog
Almost new in Labs: SMS Text Messaging for chat
A sneak peek at Gmail on Android
What are you going to be for Halloween?
Feed me! Google Alerts not just for email anymore

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