The Null Device
Until now, Google and social software haven't been ideas that went together naturally. The famously engineering-focussed company had experimented with social, though mostly in engineers' 20% time, and with mixed results. Orkut became spectacularly successful in Brazil, but largely bobbed along in the wake of Friendster elsewhere until the vastly technically inferior MySpace came along and seized the market, Google Friend Connect got its lunch eaten by Facebook Connect, and other forays into social made the mistake of being a bit too clever and automatically inferring the user's social graph from their online activity, crossing the line between nifty and disturbing.
Now, however, this is likely to change. There are rumours afoot that Google have made social software a strategic priority, establishing teams to work on the problem of social as part of their regular 80% job, and that a social platform, possibly named Google Me, is in the works. Of course, as far as social platforms go, Facebook have the area sewn up, with a pretty sophisticated API, leaving little space for newcomers (or even Google) to expand into, unless they find and solve problems in the way Facebook does it.
Which brings us to this slide presentation from Google user-experience researcher Paul Adams. The presentation rigorously examines the social uses of software, and the natures of social connections (Adams mentions strong ties and weak ties, and adds a third category, temporary ties, or pairs of people involved in once-off interactions; think someone you buy something from on eBay) and pinpoints possible shortcomings of simple models such as Facebook's (the fact that people have different social circles and needs to expose different facets of their identities to different circles, and that tools such as Facebook's privacy filters have a high overhead to use satisfactorily in this way), not to mention unresolved mismatches between the way human beings intuitively perceive social interaction working and the way it does in the age of social software (for example, we are not intuitively prepared for the idea of our conversations being recorded and made searchable). All in all, it looks like a pretty rigorous survey of social software, condensed down to 216 slides. (An expanded version may be the contents of a book, Social Circles, which comes out in August.)
If Google, who have not given much weight to social software in the past, are investing in this level of research into it, they may well have a Facebook-beating social platform in the works. Though (assuming that it exists, of course) only time will tell whether Google have finally grasped social enough to pull it off.