Google+ Hangouts and the Potential of the "Alive Web"

By Wesley Fenlon

Some predict that the powerful social interaction of Google+ hangouts will help drive a new level of interaction online. Is the Internet ready for that?

Google+ represents more than a second go at social networking for a company that has proven adept at search and not-quite-so-adept at spurring user interaction. Wave fizzled out and Buzz flopped after some alarming privacy concerns. Everyone has a Gmail account, yet Google's had difficulty rolling that into a successful social platform. But Google+ is not just Buzz, round two: it’s Google’s acknowledgement of the fact that the web is changing. Going forward, social needs to be a core part of how Google approaches the web.

Gigaom’s Om Malik has coined this new Internet era the Alive Web, writing “what we miss doesn’t matter. What matters is the connection and the interactions. We get online to socialize instead of posting status updates, just as we would when we would go to our favorite club or a neighborhood bar.” That’s the social magic Google+ hopes to channel with its video chat Hangouts. Will this be the feature that helps Google+ hit it big?

When we first wrote about Google+, we saw Hangouts as a dynamite idea that may be destined for failure. Unlike Skype or video conferences or video chats with IM, Hangouts encourage the kind of spontaneous, casual multi-person discussions the web has only recently been able to handle with video. Services like TinyChat have tried to tap into this, but without a major social platform behind them. We know the core idea of hanging out online is appealing because it drives IRC chatrooms to this day. But that’s also a problem: IRC, instant messaging, and the legacy of web communication have trained us on text and relative anonymity for more than a decade.

Hangouts are far more of an investment than the identity afforded by a username in a text chat. This is the real you. How many people who hang out on the web are interested in taking that step? Malik is probably right to guess that this is where the web is going. The key to Google+’s success may be how long it takes for the Alive Web to become the Web We All Use. Malik writes:

If Google wants to beat Facebook, it would have to do social differently. It would have to circumvent Facebook’s two main behaviors — sharing and use of activity streams. In so doing, it would have to figure out a way to encourage interaction, immersion and engagement, both on web and on the mobile. Hangouts is a good start. And for the Alive Web, it’s a big boost.

His other example of an Alive Web phenomenon, Turntable.fm, has artfully mixed a real-world scenario--the club--with the concept of Internet radio. We think the Alive Web will become a key area of growth for the Internet as new ideas focus on integrating social interaction with emerging web technologies. We’re more interested in when this will happen: will Hangouts and Turntable.fm be the success stories on the forefront of this change, or will their successors refine on their ideas and solidify the Alive Web?

Do these early champions of the Alive Web have enough staying power to help us rethink how we interact with other people online beyond status updates and plain text?