At play in the fields of Google

This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


UPDATE (9/1/11): I’ve decided to end my use of Google+ due to Google’s intransigence over its identity policy. One Facebook is enough! See you over at the other corporate soul-stealer.

Cory Doctorow sums up the issues better than I could.


So I’ve joined Google+, the fantastic new social network for talking about Google+. (It’s still in private beta, but I have invitations if anyone wants one.) Enthusiasm for the still-developing service has been balanced by skepticism that we actually need another general-purpose social network — see for example what Lorianne DiSabato and Beth Adams have blogged about it. Here are my initial reactions.

1) Facebook has had a “lists” feature for quite some time, supposedly allowing one to keep up with subsets of one’s contacts — family, close friends, blogger buddies, etc. Unfortunately, it never shows me more than the most recent day or two of posts from the lists I’ve set up, and even then doesn’t seem to include everything. Facebook is good at suggesting people I should add to each semi-functional list, which makes me suspect it’s really all about data-mining with advertisers in mind: figure out how specifically we network so they can better target us in coordinated advertising campaigns. Now, there’s no guarantee that Google+’s ballyhooed “circles” won’t have the same ultimate purpose. But the interface for screening one’s data-stream by subset of contacts is much smoother, it’s not three clicks away, and (so far at least) it works.

2) Data portability is a critical issue for me. Google+ lets you download and save all your posts at any time. I like that. Despite my very liberal views on copyright and content-sharing, I don’t like the feeling I get over at Facebook that my content isn’t really my own.

3) Much as I like the 140-character limit at Twitter and as an enforcer of concision and spur to creativity for my microblogging at The Morning Porch, I don’t otherwise see the point, and I resent Facebook limiting the length of status updates. Google+ lets you go on as long as you like. It’s bloggish.

4) While it would be nice to have a “Facebook for grown-ups,” and I’ll be happy if Google+ becomes that and gets mass adoption, at this point I’m most interested in social networking around specific interests or for specific purposes. (Just look at the success of Goodreads among book-readers and Ravelry among knitters.) It’s not clear to me yet whether Google+, with its circles and video-chat “hangouts,” represents a major step forward in this regard. I am considering getting a webcam, though — the possibilities for small-group readings and workshops are very tantalizing. I’ve always hesitated to organize conference calls on Skype due to the sometimes intermittent nature of our internet connection here; far better if it were hosted in the cloud, as Google+ hangouts are. Also, spontaneous get-togethers are often the best kind, and creative types in particular are hard to herd, as would be necessary if I ever tried the Skype approach.

5) Like Beth and Lorianne, I’m a blogger first and foremost. I think that anyone who really has anything to say on a regular basis should have their own blog, and that we should preferentially leave comments about blog posts at the point of origin and stop letting discussions fragment and dissipate at a half-dozen different places where the link might be shared.

6) A link-sharing culture, regardless of its host (Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, etc.) is fundamentally about enthusiasm for things that others have written, captured or made. This is both good and bad. I like the enthusiasm (and the frequent displays of wit), but I get frustrated after a while and want to say, O.K., but what have you made? Where are your poems? Hang out too much with professional writers or artists, though, and you’ll notice that we tend to go in the opposite direction, rarely sharing anything we didn’t make ourselves. Is it possible that our participation in social networks has helped mitigate this tendency a little? Or for those of us who were already blogging before Facebook and Twitter got big, has it actually shrunk our blogs, diminishing the emphasis we once placed on linking out, assembling sidebar linkrolls, and being social, because hey, we’re doing enough of that elsewhere? Self-centered and often anti-social as I am, I do try to strike a balance between self-promotion and other-promotion, but it’s not always easy. I like to think my use of Facebook has forced me to at least stay focused on the problem.

7) Email is still the “killer app” for me and I think for almost everyone over the age of 30. Unlike phone calls or (god help us) instant messaging, it doesn’t interrupt whatever I’m doing and destroy my concentration. We need less distraction, not more. What keeps me involved in online social interactions are email notifications, and the more customizable those notifications are, the happier I am. Facebook has recently gotten pretty good in this regard, letting me decide on a page-by-page and group-by-group basis how I want to be notified. It would be nice if I could do this for each comment thread as well, because some discussions you really want to follow and others, not so much. (I’ve seen participants in Facebook conversations go back and delete their comments just to stop the flood of notifications when the conversation goes on too long!)

It is in this regard that the older blogging platforms are really falling behind WordPress. I’m much less likely to leave a comment anymore if can’t keep track of follow-up discussion via email. I’ll actually be surprised if Blogger doesn’t overhaul its archaic commenting system soon, and introduce a “subscribe to other comments in this thread” feature when it does so. Typepad is probably a lost cause. (Incidentally, for self-hosted WordPress bloggers, I recommend the plugin I’m using, Subscribe to Comments Reloaded, rather than the original Subscribe to Comments, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. Previously I used a different plugin with a double opt-in feature — in other words, the subscriber had to not only check a box, but reply to an email in order to confirm each and every subscription. That’s too many hoops to jump through, I think.)

The point is that for me and I presume most other email-oriented people who want to participate in online conversations, it’s important that we have the option to follow discussions via email — and that we have fine-grained controls, including the option to unsubscribe from any discussion at any time. currently leads the social media field in this regard, which may seem ironic, since WordPress is all about traditional, long-form blogging and website creation rather than social networking. The highlight of the latest version of the software is a distraction-free writing option, which shows what the developers prioritize. At the same time, they have more — and, I gather, better — mobile phone applications than any other blogging platform. But I think it only makes sense that those who most value thoughtful communication would build the best tools for discussion and response.

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26 Replies to “At play in the fields of Google”

  1. Thanks for this post, Dave. The operative words, of course, are in your last sentence: the development of thoughtful communication through the building of the best tools for discussion and response. Otherwise, one shudders to think about the waste of time on trivia that would not contribute to the “vinculum”. Nevertheless, we take advantage of the new media technologies with open eyes.

  2. Dave — great piece. I’m one of the ones whose blog has suffered because of Facebook in part but a great deal because of Ravelry. I have no interest in adding another layer of complexity to my life — if I add Google +, I’d ditch Facebook, but I can’t ditch Facebook because I now administer at least 7 pages for work. Maybe I should just make Facebook my work social media thing. Hmmm.

    1. Pica, I hear great things about Ravelry. As for Facebook, I’m co-admin of three pages and really need to start a fourth, for Festival of the Trees. It becomes kind of mandatory after a while if you’re concerned about getting a message out. I do kind of resent that, especially when I go to all the trouble to create an online space for conversation, such as the videopoetry discussion blog attached to Movng Poems, and it doesn’t get used much because people would rather stay on Facebook. (We’re lucky with qarrtsiluni, though: what comments come in do tend to be almost invariably on the website.)

  3. Based on your experience, I just switched my email confirmation option off on Subscribe to Comments Reloaded. I’ve never liked having to confirm my subscription to others’ posts’ comments, so I guess . . . And you haven’t had any problems with spam to your subscribers’ inboxes?

    Dave, I really like your posts on the current state of blogging or social networking. It’s like you’re doing all the work for me.

    As you know, I don’t care for Facebook much. But Google+ sounds like an intriguing mix of blogging and social networking. Google rarely fails at something big, and they fail twice at the same big thing even more rarely. So I bet the lack of traffic won’t last too long.

    1. Peter, that hasn’t happened so far as I know. I should hope someone would let me know if it did.

      So glad you find these kinds of posts worthwhile! I woke up early to write this one. As for Google, remember, Wave failed. And neither Buzz nor Orkut has been a huge success. Blogger, though immensely popular, languished for years in terms of development after they took it over, and could still use quite a bit more loving. So we’ll see.

    2. Peter, on the latest version of WordPress Comments Reloaded, which appeared subsequent to my publishing this post, “double opt-in is only required once, users with at least one active subscription will automatically get approved,” according to the changelog.

  4. Interesting. As a consumer rather than a producer I have a slightly different take I suppose. What I would like is a way to aggregate the conversation. You’ve mentioned both Beth and Lorianne’s posts, both of which I’ve read, but not the comments. Some blogs have feeds for the comments on individual posts. I’d like the ability for posters to have a shared comment space. So instead of travelling between individual seminar rooms with a speaker and small audience in each it would be more like a meeting with a couple of speakers or more and an integrated audience responding to each other as well as the speaker they’re not best acquainted with. This wouldn’t be timezone dependent in the way that the google “hangout” is. And raises, I would hope, the possibility of broadening conversations and discussions rather than closing them down or seeing them take place in an echo chamber. What I dislike (and fear) most about much use of the Internet is the drive to serve up more of the same. If you like this… etc. The homogenisation of polarization, the gated communities of the mind. Which can be, and often are, driven by desire for gain or bigotry. I don’t want the same, I want new, exciting, challenging, thought-provoking. Different. Broadened out of my comfort zone, not stroked in it or stomped on. Oh, and I want this facility to be cross platform non-sign-up.

    And I think by definition Google+ couldn’t do that because of the necessity to have an account. You can only “follow” blogspot blogs if you have a blogspot or google account you want to tie to it. I can’t be a “me” I choose, I have to be a me defined by software.

    Which brings me to my social programme/s of choice – an rss feed reader and a browser. I’ve 0nly recently come to this realisation as a result of Flipbook on the iPad. It’s a feed reader into which you can stick any bunch or collection of feeds in groups of your choice as well as offering its own aggregates (UK News and Tech are the ones I follow). It presents the posts like pages in a magazine through which you can flip in various ways. Or open individual posts in a browser. There’s no desktop equivalent that I know of yet but when there is the business of reading feeds will be revolutionised and, I would guess and hope, revitalised. This is a selection process which is entirely under my control – I don’t have to sign up to join anything, and nor does anyone who I choose to “follow”, nor do they have to be aware of my interest. I can group them in ways to my taste under names I have chosen. And for certain blogs where discussion is of a livelyness and informativeness to my taste I also subscribe to the comments.

    And so it was, sitting at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee flipping through the morning’s news and thinking how comfortingly familiar and how like having a non-hand-griming newspaper it was, that I read your post and had these collaborative comment rss thoughts.

    I also had other thoughts about the use of the word “display” on Google+, about marketing, promotion, the machismo of speed, the nature of “information” and identity. But they were only half formed and not really relevant.

    So what do you think? Is it a good idea? If so, does such a nifty little “let’s make a widget to share comments across blogs which updates on each in real time via rss” widget already exist? And if not do we know anyone who could make it? Think how it could aid conversation at something like the Festival of the Trees. And reduce the necessity to go to the hideous Facebook.

    Oh, and if it existed I would already know whether someone had already recommended to Beth that she get a browser add-on which zaps ads for a better browsing experience almost everywhere, not just on FB.

  5. Take a gander at this, Dave: “”What G+ is really about (pst!!! it’s not social”)” — an interesting slideshow, like a power point presentation, that suggests what Google is doing is hardly competing against Facebook or Twitter but creating a new way of combining our interests (writing, photos, videos, etc) ‘in the cloud.’

      1. Thanks for the push. I saw the link to that slideshow the otehr day but didn’t click on it. I do think Google is trying to force data openness on Facebook, among other things. As you may know, the two companies have fighting bitterly over the fact that Facebook encourages people to share their Google/Gmail contact information in order to find more friends on Facebook, but won’t let Google users have access to their Facebook data.

  6. Dave, you’ve convinced me to accept my invitation to join G+ though I think I need another social network like a hole in the head. I’ve been neglecting my micropoetry and everything else this summer anyway in service of doing readings and writing long-form poetry.

    FB seems like a game of chance to me. My “friend” list has got so big (and it’s small by most measures) and unmanageable that the chances that I’ll see any one person’s updates seem pretty slim. As for Twitter, a few minutes in that constantly accruing chatter and I’m exhausted with it.

    You also convince me to keep on blogging. Stats on my blog have been falling precipitously this summer. I don’t know whether it’s because people aren’t reading any more or because they are looking at the little blurb on FB and not bothering to come see the actual blog — or maybe reading through feeds, but at any rate, I’ve been sort of wondering if it’s time to hang it up. But the blog is what I like when I’m sober. I’ve been a little first-book drunk this year.

    1. Good, I’m glad this helped convince you not to neglect the blog! Summers are always a hard time to get people to read, especially anything a bit challenging, such as poetry or reviews thereof.

      Yes, I should’ve made it clear that it’s the sheer size of my contacts list on FB that gives me trouble. That’s why I wanted the lists feature to work as advertised — it’s the only way to make the feed usable, even after blocking updates from every game and application. Some people of course respond by radically pruning back their friends list, but if I did that it would defeat my main purpose for being there: to get to know people I don’t know very well (with an eye to finding new contributors or editors for qarrtsiluni, new hosts for the Festival of the Trees, new videopoets for Moving Poems, etc.). Theoretically LinkedIn would be a better tool for that kind of networking, but it doesn’t seem to be the way most people are using it, and besides, that’s a damn boring site — it’s all about me me me.

      Glad to hear you haven’t been neglecting the long-form poetry. I finally got around to ordering Weaving a New Eden and have been enjoying it very much.

      1. Thank you! I think it’s a beautiful book; the cover art is fantastic. I can say that because I was a passive receiver of that gift. Otherwise, I hope the poems are somewhere in the neighborhood with the looks.

        And yes, I do find FB valuable for giving me a portrait of some folk who were otherwise just names. I’m not about to give it up. But it would be nice if those lists actually worked.

  7. Dave, this is a wonderful post and I’m SO EXCITED to have found your blog through January’s. If you still have Google+ invites, I’d love to have one – if only to see what the fuss is about. Despite the continual death knells for blogging, it truly is the best platform I’ve found for in-depth discussion of an issue (especially one as marginal as poetry – oh how I wish it wasn’t so marginal – or do I?)

    Thanks so much for your work for poetry!

    1. Hello Erin, and thanks for your enthusiasm! Odd as it seems, I still haven’t lost my own excitement about blogging even after all these years — in fact, I still regularly have to restrain myself from starting new sites. Anyway, I’m not sure how many G+ invites I have but they keep telling me I have some, so I’ll send one along to the email address you used here and hope you can get in.

  8. I’ll have to check out subscribe to comments reloaded. I think I’m running the older one.

    I too love LOVE the new distraction free post screen in the new WP version. I usually compose on a word processor and then copy it to the blog for just that reason. WP never ceases to amaze me, and with each new version I tend to fall in love not just with WP but with blogging all over again.

    I got an invite for Google+ recently too, thought, I’m a bit pressed for time right now and haven’t tried it out. I agree with you that a FB for adults would be nice, but I already feel spread too thin in the social network world. Still, you’ve got me more curious to check it out…

  9. Dave, I’d appreciate an invitation to G+, if it’s not too much trouble. I was dragged kicking and screaming into Facebook; it has its uses, but I really don’t like it

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