‘The most fun thing about going out is when you run into friends unexpectedly. With Hangouts, this sort of meeting becomes possible on the internet for the first time. Let your friends know you’re available and find out who will join your video chat. Until we perfect teleportation, this is the best option.’ (Translation of the Dutch introduction to Google Plus “Hangouts”, October 2011).
Google Plus is the all new social media platform developed by Google. As with every product from Google, it is designed for simplicity, usability and has a certain fun-factor. The interface looks similar to Facebook but the functionality is different. There are “Circles”, a function that allows one to add people to different groups in order to distinguish friends from family and acquaintances. “Hangouts” are group video chat rooms anybody can start with the intention of friends from a circle to join. “Huddle” is a normal group chat (Update: They supposedly changed the name of this function to “Messenger”). There is an instant upload function which enhances use on mobile devices, and “Sparks” delivers articles of your interest to you. Google Plus is focused on simulating more precisely how sharing and interacting with different people would occur in the offline world. It does this by letting you separate people into different groups and by introducing easy access group video chat. It does this by simulating in the best way possible instant offline conversations.
At the Facebook F8 conference of 2011, Mark Zuckerberg introduced the third generation Facebook interface. He described it as follows:
“If your original profile was the first five minutes of your conversation, and the stream was the next fifteen, then what I want to show you today is the rest. It’s the next few hours of a great in-depth engaging conversation, whether it’s with a close friend or with someone you just met.” (Mark Zuckerberg F8 2011 presentation of the Facebook Timeline feature, September 22).
The new Timeline feature of Facebook enables users to upload content from before Facebook existed. The Timeline feature makes it easier to overview all the important user content and will summarize all of the more idle status updates. Users can manage what content will show up for whom. What’s interesting in the speech of Zuckerberg is how he compares the Facebook interfaces to a conversation. Again, the social media platform is trying to simulate offline conversation the best way possible. What’s more, Facebook also introduces “apps” which instantly update your actions such as the music you are listening to or the recipe you are cooking.
Overcoming the Obstacle of Time
The trend with these new features here is obviously to overcome the obstacle of time. Time to upload, content dates, time to be online and interact instantly, etc. The social media platforms are expanding their temporal engagement two directions. Firstly, Google Plus and Facebook want to make it easier for users to connect with their contacts in real time through the platform. Secondly, the platforms desire to preserve the content produced by the users for “eternity” and enclose as much information of a human life span as possible. Entire life stories can be stored. Especially Facebook is really trying to get users to upload content from before Facebook existed, thereby overcoming the obstacle of time.
Relations of space, time, offline and online are a very interesting subject of study. Research could go so many directions, the possibilities are almost endless. Studies have been done on virtual reality, cyberspace, augmented reality, and the debate of online/offline is very much alive. However, a stronger focus on the effects of time and space would be interesting. Questions one might ask include: How do people react to options of instant messaging on social media platforms? At what time of day do they interact with it? Does a function like “Hangouts” encourage people to talk with friends of friends? Does it have any effect on their offline social behavior, in making “offline” appointments with friends for example? What do instant sharing apps such as the Spotify plugin and the resulting peer pressure or social surveillance mean for the way people consume content? Could life span exhibitionism effect the way people plan out their lives temporally, like at what age to get married or to change jobs/career?
Some of these questions might imply consequences that seem far reaching. However, I think it is important to explore all possibilities when it comes to influential websites such as Facebook. One might argue that people migrate to different social platforms en masse every few years so one platform doesn’t have all the power. But provided it has become acceptable to share one’s entire life on social network sites, this function will be desired by users in the next SNS.
What is also interesting are questions concerning time of uploading. The times of day people upload content, how much time is in between uploading, what content is uploaded when, and how much is shared in one session at what times. An interesting study on Twitter by Cornell University revolved around mood swings during the day and week. It was found that mood patterns were similar globally and that the day starts promising, moods go downhill during the day, go up again in the evening and start all over again the next day. In the weekends people are happier but still the cycle of mood swings persists. Furthermore, sleep cycles could be estimated and benchmarked globally, showing that the Twitter using world breathes a similar pattern of mood, as it were. This study I think exemplifies exactly how fruitful it can be to study social media through the focus on time.
Perhaps a tool can be built to mine (part of) a Social Network Site such as Facebook, and see what patterns emerge in updating, length of sessions, time in between sessions and so on. This will facilitate the quantitative aspect of the research. For the qualitative part, the interface and possibilities of the SNS should be examined and existing literature, such as written by danah boyd, should be consulted. The new Timeline feature of Facebook for example is a radical modification of the platform. The instant apps have great potential to change content consumption. Google Hangouts might alter the frequency in which people meet in café’s. These two social platforms are highly influential to society. Now is a good time to study them.