Google and Facebook battle for your friends.
Google and Facebook battle for your friends.
Culture and technology.
Jan. 14 2009 5:08 PM

Social Warfare

Google and Facebook battle for your friends.

Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says there are no longer any reasons to be a Facebook holdout.

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This may seem like an arcane, technical struggle, but I believe that a year from now, you are actually going to care who owns your social network. A lot of Facebook is flirting, photo sharing, and inane status lines, but we are also telling it how much we value certain people. I want to hear less about this person. I'm married to this person. Please block this person from ever contacting me in any way ever again. We are sorting out the entourage, or, to put it in a more utilitarian way, we are deciding which people are worthy sources of information.

One of the stresses of being on the Web is the vast amount of available information. It's a condition that Clay Shirky has described as "filter failure"—we don't know what sources to let in or what new sources have potential value. (Read this great interview for more Shirky insights.) One obviously great filter is our friends. And one of my favorite places for the random videos and fun links without which the modern workday could not be endured is my Facebook news feed. But my little salon of procrastination is under enormous pressure, as Facebook has yet to figure out the whole making-money thing. I would be bummed if the site had to spam me with ads in order to survive, yet I was forced to stay on Facebook because I wasn't able to take my friend list to new pastures.


Facebook also knows this and is trying to figure out how open to be. It has the advantage of a huge lead in the size of its network. (More people means more opportunities to find new friends for you.) Meanwhile, Google and its partners are gesturing: Come be free and frolic on our open platform. Google and Facebook have said that they will one day play nicely with each other, but a lot is at stake on the social frontier. Glazer put it best: "People are inherently social—killer user habits are built around connecting to other people." Killer user habits also make great marketing and advertising platforms.

The hope is that as Google and Facebook compete, we are fitfully making our way toward the benefits of portable social data, a sort of command center for our online self. The advocates of this openness discuss such sci-fi goodies as geolocation and "ambient controls" that would let us decide, like a dimmer switch, how much social information we want to receive. (If you need to get something done, change the setting to "Hermit.") Keeping a close eye on your online identity might feel burdensome, like putting on a second set of clothes, but consider how much nicer it will be to manage how you look, rather than letting some algorithm do it for you.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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