Two seemingly unrelated events — Google's launch of its new social network Google+ and the decision by the U.S. Postal Service to target 3,700 of its branches for potential closure — may have more in common than you think. Together, they are representative of the fundamental changes that are taking place within our modern communication networks.
As companies race to adapt to the rapid digitization of the world’s information into 1s and 0s, they are also re-defining how we communicate with each other. Today, we are more connected to each other, and we are connected to more people than we ever thought possible. At a time when nearly all of us are just one degree of separation away from any major politician, celebrity or cultural figure, is it possible that we are more separated than ever before?
Take, for example, the potential USPS branch closures. Predominantly, these closings would take place in rural areas that do not generate enough network activity to justify their costs. Yet, for many smaller towns, these post offices were vital nodes in a nationwide communication network. They were core to the very identity of the town and a gathering place for community members to celebrate important moments in their lives. But large cities are not immune. The U.S. Postal Service is shutting its doors across New York city, from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn.
It doesn’t take much to see other signs that our communication network is fundamentally changing. Consider the shuttering of the Borders Books chain. Just a few years ago, it’s hard to believe that anyone would have lamented the closing of a “big box” store. But that’s exactly what’s happening, as people realize that Borders was the one place they went to hang out all day, enjoy a cup of coffee and communicate with like-minded readers. Or, take the example of Netflix, which is weaning people off of their red DVD mailers and encouraging customers to stream movies instead. A physical DVD that you pop into your DVD player in the family living room is inherently social. How many times has someone seen a red Netflix envelope on your kitchen table or in your office and asked, “What did you get this week?” The movies you download on your tablet or mobile device are not likely to produce the same personal feedback, and you’re more likely to watch those films alone.
It would be easy, of course, to dismiss all of these changes as simply the unintended consequences of leading a progressive, digital life. Physical locations that sell books, movies or music are all bound to be crowded out by the inexorable growth of the Internet and digital media. Right?
So it’s interesting to consider how Google+ is subtly changing the way we communicate with each other. One of the most popular features of Google+ is Circles, which enables you to segregate all of your friends, family, acquaintances and online colleagues into different groups. You can message them as a whole (as on most social networks), or you can decide which specific Circles receive your messages. At the same time, all of your friends, family, acquaintances and online colleagues can segregate you into their own Circles.
The true brilliance of Google+ is that your Circles and the Circles of your acquaintances do not have to overlap. (If this were a Venn Diagram, it is quite possible that your Circles would sit forlornly apart, never to meet in the middle.) Your Google Profile acts like a modern digital telephone directory to find anyone in the world. Your Circles, on the other hand, act as a private “do not call” list. Unlike Facebook, you do not have to accept a “friend request” — people can find and circle you without you having any say in the matter. It’s like Twitter in that I may choose to follow you and you may choose not to follow me, but we are somehow connected. Bringing the U.S. Postal Service back into the argument, it would be like sending — but not receiving — anonymous fan letters to people that you may never meet in your life.
The changing nature of the way that we communicate with each other should have network and information theory gurus salivating at the prospect of a new, grand experiment. It makes sense that, as the physical nodes of our communication network begin to disappear forever, we are rushing to fill them with new digital nodes. It is a search for meaning in our social lives. If all this is starting to sound a lot like a digitally updated version of the bestseller Bowling Alone, maybe there’s a reason. As a society, we are moving further and further away from messages and communication, and more towards pure information, delivered to whomever wants to receive it.