Tools vs. Toys: Why The Timeline Changes Nothing

Yesterday Erick and I had an interesting discussion about Facebook vs. Google+ and I came down on the side of G+. Why? Because tools are important, toys aren’t. Granted Facebook’s 500 million visitors a day proves me wrong in numeric terms, but in general usability and quality, I’m coming reluctantly down on the side of Google Plus.

As you well know, Facebook won the Internet with its app features and new timeline feature, a view of your data that offers a sort of time machine into the distant past. I saw pictures of my kids from years ago, their faces implike and far more natal than they are now. It was a great feeling but it lasted maybe fifteen minutes. Now Facebook is showing me a list of things that happened since I was born, a fairly impressive feat given I spent two thirds of my life without the Internet.

Google Plus, on the other hand, introduced enhanced Hang-Outs. Leave it to Google to blow its wad on productivity software. While I find the value of Google Plus dubious at best, I think hang-outs are a great tool and quite disruptive. A room that I can use to share sketches, documents, and photos? Without having to download WebEx or GotoMyPC some other garbage screen-sharing app? That’s the world I want to live in.

I like Google’s tools. They are good and strong and useful. Google Wave was great (while it lasted) and hang-outs are great for tech folks who want to work together. Their goal is the steady erosion of friction between Google’s ad product and the Internet and they do it through the release of tools that Google programmers want to use themselves.

Facebook, on the other hand, is looking for the magic trigger that will turn all those eyeballs into paying customers. Zynga seems to have solved some of the riddle by selling social games, but by releasing Timeline Facebook has clearly decided to mine the valuable content they already have – your pictures, your preferences, and your recommendations. The fact that I can now embed Rdio songs onto my timeline is very telling: add in a music feature and you’ve got a music store to rival iTunes.

This is tools vs. toys. Google gives you tools to work in the information economy while Facebook gives you the toys to play in it. I’m not sure what’s better.

I’ve come to bury Google Plus and Facebook, not to praise them. Both services are essentially time sinks designed in both cases to stroke the souls of thousands of lonely people. I use them both, to be sure, but are they changing anything with these additions? Are they improving our lot in life?

Fans of Neil Postman will recognize a bit of stridency in my voice and I feel it is justified. Just as broadcast media controlled our minds two decades ago, one-to-one media control our minds in the early 21st century. It will take a few generations for us to become immune to the siren’s call of social media and by then the technology will have moved on.

There is a certain territoriality brewing in the G+/FB wars right now and I worry that soon it will be as corrosive as the Android/iPhone fights that pit brother against brother and father against son. I’m not saying I particularly care who wins here – I could take or leave both services and neither of them has offered me anything beyond an impressive list of human beings with whom I can interact. I thank both of these services for that opportunity, certainly, but I believe I’ve talked with perhaps 100 people in my social graph online and even fewer in real life. In short, if I’m so popular why am I still lonely?

In general, however, I can see people using G+ while people simply play with Facebook. It’s an important distinction for every day men and women put away their childish things and want to get down to business. Google is there for them at least in some regard and clearly Facebook is not.