article

11.04.09

Google Declares War on Facebook

After the search giant upgraded its social-networking tools yesterday, Douglas Rushkoff says its battle with Facebook might come with collateral damage: your real-life friendships.

To Google, it’s just a new, relatively minor set of upgrades to one of its many applications. To Facebook, it’s a declaration of war. Google wants in on “social,” and the search giant may just have the size, weight, and leverage to take it.

But a scorched-earth battle over our social networks may leave casualties in its wake, particularly if we start to look at our friends the way either of these companies do.

Google announced this week that it is putting a few new bells and whistles on its Friend Connect software. Users visiting sites that have the application installed will be able to fill out little profiles of themselves and see the profiles of others who have been there. Presumably, regular visitors of the same sites will seek each other out based on shared opinions and preferences. And make friends. Think of it as Facebook functionality without the Facebook.

Putting Google’s application on your site means your ads could work better and you’ll get more money. Which do you think most bloggers are going to choose?

Of course, Facebook has been working on basically the same thing, Facebook Connect, for about the same amount of time. And while Facebook can’t claim to have come up with the idea of putting a social shell over the otherwise non-social sites of the Web, the company did feel relatively safe as the Internet’s social leader. Social is its turf, and a realm in which Google has yet to make a real dent. Google may own our data, but Facebook owns our social networks.

Each service has its advantages. Google’s is easier to install—in fact, the company automatically turned it on for every site using Blogger. Facebook’s version is a bit more transparent in its privacy policies, and feels like a bit less strange to use since Facebook is already the place and brand through which so many of us do social networking. Letting people be their Facebook selves on a Web site makes some intuitive sense.

The real difference between the two services is the intention of the companies behind them. Facebook has extended its functionality onto the Web in order to draw us back onto Facebook. The more we use Facebook’s apps to find and connect to other people out on the Web, the more committed we become to our profiles, walls, and posts back on Facebook. Google doesn’t have a networking hub to draw us into, so what’s in it for the search giant?

Why of course, as with everything Google does, the real goal is more and better targeted advertising. Indeed, the most important (but last to be mentioned) upgrade to Google’s Friend Connect is a feature that allows Web sites to target advertisements to individuals based on their Friend Connect profiles. No, Google isn’t really providing us access to each other. It’s providing advertisers with better access to each of us.

So who is going to win? Google, of course. And it’s not because the company is better at social. It’s because Google is better at making money, and helping others do so.

Putting Facebook’s application on your site only helps your visitors connect with others who have visited. If you’re selling or publicizing something, and you’re lucky, maybe they’ll even talk about how great your products are, and then broadcast parts of their conversation back to their “walls” on Facebook.

Putting Google’s application on your site means your ads could work better and you’ll get more money.

Which do you think most bloggers are going to choose?

Make no mistake: Bloggers and Web site operators are the real targets right now. They need to be convinced by one or both of these companies that visitors to their Web sites are not people to engage with but a resource to be tapped. Under the guise of delivering their users unto each other, Web site operators gain access to an arsenal of customer analysis graphs and direct marketing tools that would make Lester Wunderman blush.

We all become consumer statisticians, massaging our content to create the most hits, and manipulating our visitors to look for friends in all the wrong places. Why should retail sites be the only ones to take advantage of this stuff?

This is why beyond who wins or loses, both services—and the heated battle between them—threaten to degrade what little genuinely social activity might be occurring online. The object of this software is never to connect us to each other, but to leverage our need for social connection in order to connect us to a product or ad.

The more forcefully Facebook or Google fights to convince the people creating our Web sites that this is true, the more the Internet will be about turning our human connections into brand loyalties, and our friendships—or lack of them—into exploitable vulnerabilities.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia , ScreenAgers , Media Virus , and, most recently, Life Inc., by Random House.