Life As A Mosaic, Not A Monolith: What Google+ Means

My recent brief experience with Google+ (or, as the URL says in reverse polish) has led me to some observations about how we might be shifting our personal and collective use of tools, and thereby our sense of self in the increasingly media-augmented world we inhabit.

Google+ is a suite of social tools sharing a common core. At the heart of that core is the user’s profile, which acts as a key to open the Google door, on one hand, and on the other as a handle so that others can choose to interact with us. Google+ offers us a collection of user experiences, such a reviewing other folk’s profiles, reading and commenting in streams, and entering into other, more specialized contexts for interaction, like the video-chat Hangouts.

Leaving aside the specifics of whether or not the Hangouts stream fast enough, or the way Google+ does or does not do allow us to share audio or not, one thing is clear: Google+ is designed to support many different tools on top of the basic social framework that underlies the system.

I think Google has taken a giant step forward, in that regard. Although Google+ is currently a browser-based experience, and one that will run in any browser, the company has positioned itself for the world just over the horizon. And what is that world?

The future of computing will not be based on a unitary, all-encompassing user experience, where we use a sprawling, general purpose social context to interact with others. Our online lives will soon be based on using dozens of disparate, highly focused applications, like those that Google+ provides.

Life is a mosaic, not a monolith.

I find myself using more extremely narrow applications instead of general ones.

I enjoy Instagram because it is fun and focused on the social sharing of pictures, and I increasingly use Flickr as a repository. Instagram is a comic book, and Flickr is the Library of Congress.

I like using Path’s new With app, where I simply post that I am with someone, and take a picture of them (optionally) wherever it is that we are together. I found that Hashable’s elaborate syntax for various sorts of encounters, and its relatively clumsy integration into Twitter, more of a puzzle than a benefit, so I stopped using it.

Even with something like my calendar, I find that I am growing more tolerant of a mosaic instead of a monolith. I long ago switched to Tripit for travel tracking, and their iPhone app is where I go to check details on my travel arrangements, not my general purpose calendar. Likewise, I use Plancast to track conferences I plan to attend. I have subscriptions to these services show up in my Google calendar, but those are secondary, and I often have them unselected.

I am using Simplenote for note keeping, and there is a clever app called NoteTask that allows me to manage a todo list within Simplenote. But I am also managing notes on my contacts within Rapportive, which integrates with Gmail.

I am also testing out a new app called Diacarta, which provides a very ideographic way of thinking about your day, shown above. You pick icons to represent the sort of activity you are going to be involved in, and you attach it to the central watchface to indicate time. Here you see three activities, one which was a webinar, and two meetings involving different sorts of beverages. Diacarta doesn’t sync with other calendars yet, but will be soon, and I imagine I might use Diacarta like an icon-rich wristwatch, rather than the way I use a calendar application. But I am growing more fragmented in tool use, choosing tools for a specific purpose, like ‘Diacarta as a wristwatch’.

[update: Diadarta’s new version, available now, does support syncing with the native iPhone calendar.]

But I don’t want to be sidetracked by the specific reasons for adopting these tools over others, except to make the case that my natural drift – and I think other people’s too, in time – will be away from massive all-in-one tools, and toward a mosaic of highly specialized apps.

Behind this are a pair of twinned trends, major threads in the liquid media theme I have been developing over the past months.

The first is the transition toward connected apps, courtesy of the rise of genius mobile devices (genius = way beyond smart), like the With, Diacarta, and Simplenote apps I mentioned.

The flipside of the rise of apps is the fall of the browser. The browser is a kludge, a way to shoehorn the web onto PCs, made necessary because the operating systems around when the web was invented were inward focused: they were all about applications, files and folders on the hard drive. But we have gone far enough toward always-on that we will have dozens of web-aware and web-dependent apps on our genius devices, and only occasionally open the browser for old-time website browsing.

Apps are the tiles of the new mosaic, our composite life online.

And Google+ is a deft straddle, with one foot in the old world and the other in the new. Google+ is currently a browser based system, but it is relatively easy to imagine the core functionality implemented in a next generation Android, and all the tools – like Circles and Hangouts – accessed as complementary apps, along with dozens or hundreds of others built by Google or a growing ecology of developers.

Of course, Apple will respond in kind, and is perhaps a step or two ahead with its Twitter partnership, and its plan to integrate Twitter into iOS 5. So we can expect a similar flowering of iOS 5 apps that build on a core of social capabilities, and that will allow app developers to leverage profiles, following, streams, and other foundational social componentry at the OS level.

By lowering the core elements of sociality into the infrastructure, Google and Apple will be setting the stage for a new generation of app development, and therefore, user experience. Which will mean an acceleration of the transition for us, as users, from monolith to mosaic.

Google+ shows that Google is going to make that transition, and it will be Apple and Google that will be defining the next ten years of the social revolution, as a result. Facebook and Microsoft may be fated to fall into each others arms, just to catch up, or survive at all.

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