From the editor

Google, Google+ and Circles set the world a spin again

Google is not making us stupid, according to a study I read somewhere. I’ll tweet the link if you need it … or did I already send it?

Do you find yourself categorizing information by things you can find online later if needed versus things you have to commit to memory because there isn’t an online record? If so, you may have Googlitis—defined by Urban Dictionary as obsessive Googling, self-Googling or otherwise using the Google search engine to answer all of life's questions.

Googlitis, uh hem, Google, has been associated with poor memory retention, laziness and even decreased intelligence. Results from a recent study conducted by Columbia University called “Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips,” shows that Googling—and the use of other search engines—hasn’t deteriorated memory retention, lowered IQs or even depressed our intellectual motivation. However, researchers who conducted this study contend that search engines are changing the way we process information.

The industrial revolution changed the way we process information. For that matter, air conditioning has changed the way we process information. I can confidently say that without air conditioning in this summer’s relentless, triple-digit heat, the way I process information would change dramatically. My point is that technology does not fundamentally change our biological social patterns or behaviors, and this applies to search engines.

Memory is where it’s at

When we don’t know something, we think about where we might find the information we need, and we tend to prioritize where to find things over the information itself, explained Betsy Sparrow, who headed up the Columbia study on the impact of search engines on human memory organization.

If we think we can Google something, or find the information online, we tend to forget it. If, however, we think something won’t be accessible online, we’re more likely to commit the information to memory.

Sparrow said that our brains rely on the Internet for memory in much the same way they rely on the memory of a friend, family member or co-worker. So what’s really changed besides the go-to source of information?

When my dad taught me how to change the oil and tires on my first car—just one of the many conditions of getting car keys in hand—I retained the gist of it, but my takeaway was knowing who to call when I had a flat tire. And when my dad explained that he wanted me to know how to change the oil in my car, but that the auto shop would actually be doing all future oil changes, my brain went into sleep mode, polite and still. 

Conversely, according to the report, when we do retain information, we’re less likely to remember where we got it. So, if we can’t remember the information, we generally remember where to find it. And if we do remember the information, we can’t always recall where we learned it. Did you know the song Don’t Stop Believing by Journey is the most downloaded song of the 20th century? It was on some news show I watched last week. I can’t recall which one.

Low self esteem? Don’t blame Google

It’s easy to buy into the hype about the potential side effects of Google. How many user names and passwords do you use in a week? How many social networking sites do you juggle? How many profiles do you manage? How many email accounts do you have? How many new apps have you learned to use this year? I could go on and on, but suffice to say, most of us have probably had days—or years—of information overload, where we can’t recall the information we just Googled, and/or times we feel we’re just not as smart as we used to be.

Most people naturally correlate memory troubles with less-than-average intelligence, but rest assured, the memory encoding process called elaborative encoding isn’t linked to intelligence. Would you take advice from a man who couldn’t even remember his own phone number, and who soft-boiled eggs in the same pot he cooked his soup in to avoid washing an extra pot? This memory-challenged, lazy man was Einstein. Einstein said, “Never memorize what you can look up in books [or Google].” [added for fun]

The company that organized, and arguably revolutionized, the World Wide Web has taken on the epic challenge of digitally organizing our complex, real-life relationships with Google+, and bringing the subtle nuances of our offline relationships online with Circles. Circles is a feature of Google+ that is designed to give us more control over who views the content we post, or others post, to our Google profile based on our innate social drivers and the varied ways we communicate with others in the real world. It’s a plan as ambitious as the size and variety of the need it aims to fill.

Traveling in social Circles

Grumblings about Circles are beginning to drown out the initial roar of accolades. Paul Adams’ “The Real Life Social Network” is a pragmatic, quick-hit look at the inherent difficulties of digitally organizing our “friends,” the information we share with them, how the great minds at Google, Adams included, mapped the framework for Circles, and why Circles (or grouping contacts) is important to all users.

David Damaree of Chicago-based Practical Creative & Code brought up some interesting points regarding user experience and cognitive overhead, which Damaree describes as the number of logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at:

The problem Circles are meant to solve is talked about in the same context as privacy, but is actually more about audience targeting. The idea is that you may want to post something personal or compromising to your Google+ profile, because you want to share it with your friends, but you don’t want work contacts or the public to see it. Google+’s solution is for you to target each post to one or more Circles, but that means for every single post or photo upload, you have to think about the thing you’re posting and which of your various Circle contexts it would be appropriate for. Google seems to think that’s an easy solution, and it may be the best way for software to solve that problem.

Damaree argues that “posting something to a social network means making it public. And in this context, ‘public’ just means ‘not compartmentalized.’ Most things you post to Facebook will go only to the friends you’ve explicitly let into your network, but that’s just a slight difference in how the service defines ‘everyone.’ Ultimately it’s far easier to not post than to have to think about your friendships in terms of categories, either every time or just once.”

For a concise yet comprehensive take on the benefits and shortcomings of Circles, read Kevin Cheng’s “Can we ever digitally organize our friends?” As a product manager for Twitter, and founder of Off Panel Productions (an online comic publishing network), Cheng is an adept multitasker, yet even he has trouble tracking his online contacts.

In his article, Cheng writes that he’s less concerned about coming up with logical categories for his friends than he is remembering who will see a given post. “From my experience organizing my Facebook and address book, I’ve found that I don’t remember the complex taxonomies I dream up. In fact, I don’t know that I can list every person that’s in my  ‘Family’ group in Flickr even though it’s less than twenty,” wrote Cheng. Thank goodness the information Cheng needs is available online.

Posting generic, PC comments or not posting anything seems fair enough given everything else we’re juggling these days. After all, participating in today’s social networking is still a choice and not a mandate. But this is changing, especially for business profiles.

 “Sign in using Facebook or LinkedIn.” Does this prompt look familiar? As individuals, we can choose whether or not to log in using our social profile of choice to the many sites with embedded social networking capabilities. According to Adams, search sites are now embedding social interactions. For business sites, when integration occurs at the browser, control is, well, out of your control. 

Censoring your posts, or not posting anything, could truly dumb us down, considering the bulk of our social interaction is now done online. After all, we’re hard-wired for social interaction, and social interaction is a key innovation driver.

 “[Perhaps] those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization. And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in the larger questions of understanding,” said Sparrow.

“[Our] online social networks are simply a crude representation of our offline social networks. We have a long way to go before getting anywhere close to the complexity of real life, writes Adams. “We don’t need to understand all of this today. We just need to start from a solid foundation from which to build.”

And that’s just what Google’s done in Google+ and Circles.  


This was first published in August 2011

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