Google + has, for better or for worse, completely upset the balance of the internet and the way it relates to our personal, real-life lives. And it is completely freaking me out.
The whole time I have had a life on the internet, there has been an essential principle: what you put up can be seen by everyone, with few exceptions. With Google +, every communication is targeted, and we can no longer passive aggressively pretend that we aren’t putting something out there in full view for everyone except the one person it’s really meant for. This weird shouting into the void that we’ve all been doing on the internet for the past ten years has suddenly had a spot light shone down on it and has been revealed to be really weird in comparison to how most reasonable adults conduct their lives. The internet has caught up to the Ego and Super Ego of our humanity. It is no longer solely a playground for the Id.
When I was 7 and my parents helped me build a webpage with HTML to feature the products of my nascent poetry career it was true that anyone could see my little website. I didn’t get much traffic, but theoretically anyone could have run across the poem on water that I wrote in my 3rd grade Language Arts class. This was true when I was 15 and started a Livejournal, the home of teen angst online. Yet somehow I was able to spill my guts and my most intimate thoughts in a way I never could to a paper journal. I needed the support of an audience, however theoretical. I doubt many people who weren’t my immediate friends read my journal, but then again, who knows. The assumption was always that anyone could read it.
I started a Myspace account at the end of high school and tried to post very cool pictures of myself in thrifted pencil skirts. Where Livejournal was totally personal, totally about the circle of friends who read it, Myspace felt more like going out to a party or downtown and wanting to see and be seen. This totally upped the “everyone can see it factor.” The same applied to Facebook. That platform was all about documenting experiences that you shared in real life with other Facebook users. For the longest time it was a public-only account. Slowly, over time, we all learned to privatize our accounts to anyone but our friends. I learned that the hard way when a classmate started posting barbed comments about me during debate season between Obama and McCain after our Facebooks revealed we had opposing political views. But that was the first time anyone seemed to start thinking about making our online lives as private as our analog lives.
Google + takes this slow shift even further. It makes the internet almost too much like real life. I don’t know if the internet is ready for this kind of self-censorship after decades of shameless self-promotion and the illusion of everyone being an online celebrity. With Google +, it's exactly like real life. If you know someone, they have their place in your life, and you tell him or her what you tell them. No longer does it seem so appropriate that I wouldn’t make an online connection with someone I run into occasionally in real life, but don’t actually like very much, and therefore don’t want to grant them access to all of my amazing 100 character musing on cheese and pictures of how great my hair looked when I woke up Monday morning.
With Google +, I can acknowledge that I know this person I don’t especially like, and relegate them to the same corner of my internet life that I do in real life, where they will only hear a few occasional pleasantries. This has been celebrated as one of the great virtues of the new platform. To me, however, and perhaps to many others who briefly investigated Google+ and then didn’t actually convert, it is a hindrance. Are we ready to live online like we do offline? After decades of the internet being a playground of idealized avatars, online handles, and fantasy projection into digital space I’m not sure if we can handle this harsh new world of digital realism.