x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

With circles galore Google taps the mean girl in all of us

Google+, a new social network, harnesses the cruel power the mean kids exercised when you were in grammar school - the power to categorise people

I have a friend who has 13,487 Twitter followers, and the reason I know that is because he mentions it a lot.

Like at lunch, the waiter will come and he'll say: "I have 13,000 Twitter followers, so I think I'll have the Cobb salad." Or maybe, out for dinner, he'll say: "I don't know what to have. Maybe I should ask my Tweeps, huh? I have 13,000 of them."

It makes no difference to me, of course - I'm primarily interested in things you can actually monetise. But it is sort of galling to note that this guy has, roughly, 10,000 more Twitter followers than I do.

Recently, though, I had my revenge. Two weeks ago, I joined Google+ - pronounced, I'm told "Google Plus" - which is Google's long-awaited answer to the Facebook behemoth that has swallowed us all up.

Google has built a social networking platform that allows you to do online what you do in real life all the time: put your friends into categories (Google calls them "circles") which is a nice way of putting it, but we all know what's really going on. It's back to grammar school, when the mean girls kept ruthless control over their friends and acquaintances, ranking them, labelling them, keeping them in their place.

And Google+ allows you to do just that. We're all older now, and more civilised, but we still keep categories in our heads for our friends and loved ones. We still make distinctions between family, old school friends, people we work with, people we work with and actually like and people we wish we could be rid of but can't. Google+ allows you to sort them all out.

Which you can't really do on Facebook, which is a naive and democratic kind of society - sort of what a plush puppet on children's television would come up with. "Aren't we all friends? Aren't we all equal?"

But we're not, and everyone knows it, which is why mean girls in grammar school are powerful. They aren't the only ones who like to keep the social circles clear and understood. They aren't the only ones who like to categorise and exclude. But for some reason, they're the ones who take all the heat for it.

Google realises this - realises that we're all secret list makers and circle keepers - and it even realises something better: that we have (or at least I have) made a mess of our Facebook accounts. We've got too many people in them, all jumbled together, and our Facebook newsfeeds are an undifferentiated mess of updates and trivia from people we barely know.

Google+ makes it easy for us to declare Facebook bankruptcy, start over, and this time, do it right.

And here's the brilliant part: when you refuse to "friend" someone on Facebook - or, worse, when you "unfriend" them - they eventually find out. Hurt feelings ensue. But Google+ has it all figured out. When you put someone in one of your Google+ circles, all they know is that they're in one of your circles. They don't know what, specifically, you're calling that circle.

For instance, you can, like me, take all of the people you really don't know and put them into a circle you can call "People I Really Don't Know" and be done with it. It's what the mean girls in grammar school could only dream of.

There's no limit to the categories you can create, just as there's no limit to the subtle variations in your friendships. You can even make a circle for "People I Hate Who Don't Realise I Hate Them" or "People Who Can Help Me Financially If I Play My Cards Right."

I mean, those are just examples. Off the top of my head.

Right now, only a couple of weeks after its release, Google+ has about 18 million members, about 2.5 per cent of Facebook. But you've got to start somewhere.

For now, Google+ is an invitation-only service. You have to be invited to join, which is a way for Google to roll out the service organically and in a measured way, but which drives people like my friend with the 13,000 Twitter followers crazy, because I was invited a two weeks ago, and he wasn't.

So this week at lunch, after he ordered the salad and mentioned his Twitter followers, I mentioned Google+. "I'll have the turkey sandwich" I said. "And I haven't seen you on Google+."

After a certain amount of bargaining - notably, that my turkey sandwich was on his tab - I agreed to send him an invitation. I did that, and then I put him in one of my circles.

I won't tell you what it's called.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood