Facebook is like Sydney, Google+ is like Canberra. For now.

Google are really trying hard to promote Google+, have you noticed? The trouble is that compared to Facebook, Google+ is kind of like Canberra as compared to Sydney.

For those not in Australia, Canberra is a planned city, the capital, where most people work for the government. It’s neat and tidy and well-behaved. It’s excellent for cycling but hopeless for bussing. There’s not enough to do for most visitors, unless you’re like me and can quite happily spend the entire day in an art gallery. You don’t go there to relax: you go for a conference.

Sydney, on the other hand, is (by Australian standards) old and filthy and loud and tangled. The public transport system is comprehensive, but heterogeneous and difficult to navigate. Last time I was there you needed different tickets for the bus, train and ferry. The people can be unfriendly (unless you look rich, which is something I just can’t fake any more). But there’s a buzz to it. It’s a lot of fun. It had the 2000 Olympics, which were pretty amazing. It has a world-famous gay mardigras. And when people think of an Australian city they think of Sydney with its opera house and harbour bridge. People go there to see the sights.

Facebook has third-party apps. I reckon that’s the magic thing, the thing that’s missing from Google+. Any developer can add functionality. The social plugins, all third-party, are fantastic. I’ve got it set up so that my Facebook timeline automatically displays all my Tweets, my activity on Tumblr, Soundcloud and Youtube, links to my MailChimp newsletters, and, using the Networked Blogs app, a fair selection of postings from this blog and my main site Proximity (proximitypoetry.com). It’s the go-to place!

But a lot of the apps on Facebook are just ways to play. Games, quizzes, various kinds of virtual gifting. Going on Facebook feels like a stroll down the street in a neighbourhood where all your friends live and everything’s open 24/7. OK, there’s a lot of garbage lying about, but it’s fairly easy to avoid stepping in it. (That is becoming more difficult – more on that in a moment.) Like any new environment, when you first join Facebook it can be pretty uncomfortable until you figure out how you fit into it. Sydney is like that, and I imagine that when I finally manage to visit New York, I’m going to feel much the same.

But Facebook was like Canberra at first — plain and simple and fast. (It’s still fast, actually, most of the time.) The simplicity was one of the main reasons people moved there from Myspace, which had become painfully bloated with over-the-top…

advertising. And, guess what? Facebook’s monetising strategies have become much more annoying of late. There is now a lot of thinly-disguised advertising content in the main stream of posts, instead of in a sidebar. Groups and pages are cluttered with posts from people who have been seduced by the temptation to get paid to share ‘news’ about some mob selling shoes or investments or the secret to a better sex life. It sucks.

I don’t mind sidebar advertising: sometimes I even click on it. Usually I’m disappointed by what I find, but that’s another story. If it weren’t for the advertising Facebook wouldn’t be free, and neither would Google. But there’s a limit to what is acceptable in a site where you spend long periods of time. The people at Google have known this from the beginning, and I hope they don’t become corrupted by greed to the extent that they start doing what Facebook is doing.

I hesitate to recommend that everyone moves to Google+ (as if that would make a difference anyway, LOL) because, even though it’s convenient to have all the integration, even though I love Gmail and am pretty attached to Google Calendar, the thought of having everything on Google gives me the creeps. Eggs all in one basket… we are all far too dependent on Google as it is. (BTW, if you’d like to try an alternative search engine, check out duckduckgo.com. I like it and I don’t.)

However, as pointed out in an excellent book, ‘What You Really Need to Know About the Internet: From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’ by John Naughton (Quercus 2012), the Internet is an ecology, not an economy. There are niches for all kinds of ‘species’, symbiotic relationships arise between large and small organisms, it’s complex, chaotic, unpredictable… and all based on a system that, like DNA and RNA, is simple, elegant, computational, egalitarian, and acronymic (I’m thinking of the TCP/IP protocols, the DNS, and all that).

When I wonder about the future of the Net, I look at my two smart Montessori-educated teenagers as an example. (Interestingly, the boys who founded Google were Montessori students.) The way my kids use the Internet evolves over time as they, and the Internet, develop. The Net is only a little older than they are.

My young man has set up a Minecraft server for himself and his friends. He’s finding out how difficult it is to be a benevolent dictator. They talk on Skype while they build imaginary worlds out of virtual Lego, and there seem to be a lot of arguments. My young woman is into photography and dance. She relaxes on Tumblr, where she has two blogs that I am forbidden to look at. Both my kids also communicate using Facebook, Gmail and Youtube (making videos as well as watching) and listen to music online instead of buying it. They use whatever works best for them, and that changes over time as they, and the Internet, slowly grow up.

No-one can predict what will happen next. Some people will always prefer the costume-jewelled alleyways of Sydney, some will prefer the suits and cyclepaths of Canberra, and some will just want to walk away and live in a cave someplace. But if you listen carefully — late nights and early mornings are the best times — you’ll be able to discern the small twitterings of peculiar poets as they flutter here and there, exploring the trackless forest of Facebook, the eerily-lifelike rock-gardens of Google, and whatever grows up to supplement or replace them.