So Google is going to offer deals for check ins. No doubt this extends Google’s grip on merchant online advertising, providing for a new kind of offering as well as for a new means of connecting with customers. (Neither is strictly new for Google.) In short, the business model, from Google’s perspective, is a no-brainer. And Google’s decision to support checkins is, from Google’s perspective, completely rational.
As a social interaction designer, I’m somewhat underwhelmed by Google’s decision. Google’s track record in social has left a great deal of social to be desired. Google+ seems to be humming along, but due largely to its close resemblance to Facebook (IMHO), to a ready supply of expatriates transitioning from Facebook or twitter, as tourists if not long-term re-settlers. Google+ circles is sort of interesting (it’s not finished) and seems to work for some people. (But no, Google, it’s not just like real life, as claims your TV ad.) Google+ has a like button, this one branded by the minimalist but essential functional logic of the LIke, as understood by Google: plus one.
So, I think it’s Google’s strategic absorption of social features that’s unsettling to me. If Google is right, and gets its social successfully this time, then the social of social either never was or has ceased to be that very social. Circles, plus ones, and check ins would, according to Google’s social logic, serve simply to capture very passing interests. This, because Google’s approach to social is even more global than that of Facebook: it operates at a scale that requires it provide generic social. Basic, simple, and stripped-down social features make sense in this context. But it’s a functional, minimalist, and culturally generic one.
We know from social media and tool design that it’s not the feature in-and-of-itself that captures social actions and activities. It’s in the context of use; use in this case that’s characterized by social practices. I fear that for Google, social logic is reduced to a functionalist, instrumentalist, and information-oriented view of the world. In Foursquare, for example, the check in at least belonged to a somewhat trivial but novel set of activities. Google’s check in will serve simply to connect a user’s intent to declare his/her location: in short, a submit button.
Clearly the meaning of social features is not in the button — its function or its label. We will have to see whether or not the Google view of the social world is the correct one. Whether more people will check in, encircle people, and +1 sans engaging social context. Or whether the lack of an engaging social context will leave users nonplussed (!) and checked out.
I suspect that it is and always will be in context that social communicates — not in functional operations, features, and experiences. I may be wildly off, but my sense is that when Google encroaches upon what the merchant considers to be its customer and brand relationships — as is the case with deals required for checkins, then the merchant will resent featurization of social. This reduces relationships to visits, and to transactions. But I may be wrong. Google has scale. Perhaps Foursquare always was too nerdy for mainstream adoption. Maybe the checkin died its own death last year and carries on now only as a shell of its former self: a universal feature but not a social activity. I don’t know. It’s but a short distance from the check in to the check out. And Google knows the check out.