What Google Says about Offline Relationships and the Social Web

Something has been irking me for a long time about social media and relationships and it hit me today when I ran across the presentation below from Paul Adams, a UX guy over at Google. My Aha! moment was beautifully presented and summed up by research Google has been doing about real-world relationships and how those are translated online. The findings show that we’re engaging in behavior in our online social networks (like Facebook) unlike any behavior we would conduct in our offline social lives.

Some of that is not our fault. With online social being relatively new, we’re still forced into whatever template we’re given to interact within. But, what Google suggests moving forward is that businesses must keep real-world relationships in mind when designing for their online presence. (More after the slideshow.)

Online social communities like Facebook (yes, Google seemed to be referring to Facebook a lot when using examples of what not to do) are currently a one-size-fits-all solution to grouping and communicating with the people in your life. They don’t allow us to compartmentalize the people we know just like we do in real life, which can cause frustration and anxiety for some of us.

Your Great Aunt Sally Just Had a Heart Attack

Here’s a scenario: your great aunt Sally is your friend on Facebook and you were tagged in a photo with a shot of tequila in one hand and your other arm wrapped firmly around some random bartender you met when you were vacationing in Mexico, whom also happened to be pulling off his or her shirt whilst giving the middle finger (no judging.) Well, guess what? Now you’ve soiled your great aunt Sally’s perception of her dear, sweet [insert name here].

This is one of the many points Google’s research is making (except in Paul’s example, it was patrons of a gay bar and 10-year-old swimmers … I know it’s confusing, but you’ll have to just view the presentation). Point being: In our real lives, our various groups of friends and family never really intercept, unless we’ve instigated a somewhat controlled situation where that interaction occurs.

For example, if Great Aunt Sally was to meet said shirtless bartender, say, because she came out with you one night – wait, I take that back. Great Aunt Sally would likely never be in that situation with you. Point taken? But, let’s just say you started dating the bartender you met in Mexico and that person planned a visit to meet Great Aunt Sally; I’m pretty sure shirts would stay put and middle fingers would stay in line with the other four, right?

- Good Friends

Google has been conducting the following experiment with people from all over the world: Map out your social network with the people in your life on sticky notes and arrange them how you want. Some could be friends based on a hobby, others based on shared life experiences and so on.

Google found that most people have an average of four to six different and separate groups of people in their lives. And just like in the presentation, I myself, have had a fantasy of bringing all those friends and family together in one place for an event.

Foolishly, I imagined all my different groups of friends getting along, chatting and making new friends even. That fantasy was wrong, horribly wrong. The cold, harsh reality is that those kinds of things rarely happen in the real world, so why should we expect it to work online?

Study Social Interaction Offline and Bring It Online

Former Facebook employee, Matt Cohler, was quoted in a recent article about Facebook by David Gelles of Financial Times, saying, “Facebook has always thought that anything that is social in the world can be social online. Anything where people ask their friends to help them make a decision – whether it’s food or movies or travel – could be transformed online by social.” In that same article, Mark Zuckerberg predicts that in a mere five years, every industry is going to be rethought in social terms (online social, of course).

But the important thing to remember is that it’s more than just creating a Facebook page or activating a Twitter account – it’s about bringing in the ways we treat real-world relationships online and doing it well.

In Paul’s presentation, he reiterates that you must focus on behavior, not technology. He says that businesses tend to focus on the technology while users focus on what it enables them to do. So, businesses need to focus on the end result first. And isn’t this Marketing 101? Focus on the benefits, not the features?

Paul’s presentation concluded with a recap of three main points for businesses to consider when looking to create a more social experience online:

  • Design for multiple groups. People often have independent, multiple groups of people in their life that aren’t interconnected. This is the ecosystem you must design your website or products for.
  • Design for different relationships. Something designed for just close friends to interact, will be different than something designed for friends of friends to interact.
  • Design tools to support how people look to others. Other people are increasingly influencing others decisions. If you want people to use your website or product, you must design features that support the trend of people’s friends making decisions for them.

It seems that all this research by Google is actually giving us a sneak preview into how it will be handling social unlike the way its “rival” Facebook is handling social. Ironic … Google is going social and Facebook is going search, and they’re both looking at ways to make each other’s original idea better than what it was before.

Jessica Lee is the founder and chief creative for bizbuzzcontent Inc., a marketing boutique that focuses on digital content strategy and professional writing services for businesses.

See Jessica's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (6)
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6 Replies to “What Google Says about Offline Relationships and the Social Web”

In my opinion this means that the off-line introverts become on-line extroverts :)

My biggest annoyance has always been that people on social networking sites will say and do things that they would never say or do when interacting with another person face to face. Flirting, being rude, judgmental and opening up about private matters are all things that people tend to do on Facebook and Twitter that they would probably not do when communicating in person with a friend or family member. On one hand, it gives people an outlet that they never had before, but on the other hand, I don’t think people think before they post.

“…Google is going social and Facebook is going search, and they’re both looking at ways to make each other’s original idea better than what it was before.” This is so true; and very interesting to watch. :-)

Hey, Andy — isn’t it? Guess that means better results for users all around! Thanks for being one of our loyal readers — always nice to hear from you.

I thought the trust point was really interesting. People will use a platform they can trust with their sensitive data. I think people will become less naive about and how public and permanent their data is. And I hope that results in greater strides among competing online social platforms in the realm of trust and privacy.

Yes, it is scary that people still don’t understand how privacy works on many of the social platforms. Part of this is due to the fact that it’s not always intuitive to figure out the settings (not pointing fingers at you-know-who).

Also, I think people of younger generations are just more willing to share stuff about themselves — their lives are an open book — while the older generations seem to be a bit more cautious.

Thanks for your comment, Cathy!


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