Google +1: Who likes who the most?

By Rhodri Marsden

Google's +1 will work much the same as Facebook's 'Like' function.
Google's +1 will work much the same as Facebook's 'Like' function.

The internet has fundamentally changed the nature of certain English words. People using Twitter will frequently refer to their "followers", not realising that it makes them sound like David Koresh's unenigmatic cousin delivering a corporate networking seminar.

I've got "friends" on Facebook who'd probably find it difficult to pick me out of the crowd at my own birthday party, never mind give me a card or a present.

But the latest word to start haemorrhaging meaning is "like". Facebook's navy-blue "Like" buttons are strewn around the web, allowing us to endorse a particular page, see which of our aforementioned friends have also given their seal of approval and, rather pointlessly, be reminded that we like it when we return there. ("You like this." Yes, I know.)

As a result, you can watch terrifying footage online of buildings being swept away by the Japanese tsunami, alongside a box that says "17,605 people like this".

It's unlikely that any of those people take particular delight in witnessing such wholesale destruction; they're just doing what Facebook tells them to do. A better catch-all phrase might be "This page made me experience an emotion", but that probably wouldn't fit in the box.

Google has come up with an alternative, however: the more benign "+1". This new service is part of Labs, Google's online testing ground, so rather than click a "sign up" button to start using it, you instead agree to "join the experiment".

And after doing so, you, the intrepid early adopter, will see a tasteful +1 button next to each Google search result which you can dutifully click if you consider it worth remembering, or recommending.

As with Facebook, you'll also get to see which of your friends like certain links - although as "friendship" is based on whether someone appears in your email address book, it's a criterion that manages to be even more dubious than Facebook's. Soon, +1 buttons will start appearing on websites alongside "Like"; Joe Bloggs not only liked this - he also +1'd it.

One-click recommendation buttons are powerful things, and it's no surprise that Google is testing this. While the buttons that allow you to tweet links or to submit them to Digg, Reddit or Stumbleupon involve a two or three-step process, "Like" and "+1" post them straight to your profile for all your friends to see (if they're bothering to look).

The +1 feature also has the potential to give Google's search engine more power and increased accuracy; it'll not only know what we're looking for and where we end up, but also whether we found the content interesting when we got there.

But it's hard to see +1 posing a challenge to Facebook's ubiquitous link sharing. Many of us have spent three or four years assembling the ultimate list of our dearest acquaintances on Facebook and we use the site every day; you wonder how any service could make a dent in that social structure.

In addition, we can already see and use "Like" buttons wherever we go online, without having to sign up to Google's experiment. In fact, there's a free extension available for Firefox, Chrome and Safari called +Like that puts Facebook "Like" buttons next to every Google search result - essentially duplicating the functionality that Google is hoping to introduce with +1.

Though it's tempting to stamp your mark on a web page, to say you've been there, to inform the smattering of people who might be listening that they should consider visiting too, it ultimately distils the web down to yes and no.

"No" doesn't say anything at all, while "yes" merely says "Look at this!" - no context, no nuanced discussion, no details of how we might actually feel about something. Perhaps the several dozen links that get flung in our faces every hour don't give us any time for nuanced discussion - but it points to a time where TV programmes, sporting fixtures, musical performances and much else besides will require us simply to say yes, or no.

An instant vote, a barometer of opinion. So come on. Press my like button. It's on my lapel. Press it. I beg you. Please.

- THE INDEPENDENT

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