The phrase “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” was coined by American computer programmer Eric S. Raymond to distinguish two different approaches to the development of software.
The Bazaar was likened to the slightly chaotic but powerful collective approach behind the development of open source software. The Cathedral represented the traditional, closed, corporate approach to software development.
In many ways, what we are seeing with Google’s birthing pains of its new social network of Google+ is the tension between Google wanting Google+ to be the Cathedral and a vocal section that would be happier to see it operate more as the Bazaar.
Advocates of the Bazaar view of social networks would allow pseudonyms for example. They see their identity determined by how people know them in a particular environment or medium. If all of your friends know you as your avatar from Second Life, then that is the name you would use on a social network. Likewise you may have an identity as a game character, blogger, actor, musician … the list goes on.
Google sees Google+ very much in terms of the Cathedral model of social networks:
- It is ordered and controlled. Google knows who you are, where you are, what you are doing, and with whom at any point in time.
- It is a safe environment for businesses to communicate with their customers.
- Business people who want to interact with other business people can do so in a cloistered environment, protected from the social network anarchy of the general public, or a drunken nephew.
Google has unwittingly highlighted the tensions between these two approaches to social networks with its recent mass suspension of accounts.
The anti-Googlers have started a campaign that has been tagged the “nymwars” after the central issue of Google banning of the use of pseudonyms for Google+ accounts. An open letter to Google from GrrlScientist (whose Google+ account was suspended), published in the Guardian lays out possible legal issues under US, UK, Australian and European Union law of Google’s terms and conditions.
Other campaigners, such as Australian Kirrily “Skud” Robert, a former Google employee and ex-Google+ user (her account is still under suspension), have been talking to the press with articles appearing in mainstream media and sites such as Wired.
The number of campaigners is long, from Violet Blue, the blogger who broke the story of the suspensions on ZDNET, to the Geek Feminists and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The latter two campaigners have listed all of the groups of people who will be potentially harmed by Google’s policies.
So how has Google responded?
Well, allegedly by gagging any employees from discussing or advocating the issue. Other than a communication from Google VP Brad Horowitz on Google+ on the matter of pseudonyms, the company has been quiet.
For Google, the stakes are high. The company derives much of its revenue from advertising. To grow this market, it needs to stop people spending time in closed environments, such as social networks where Google has no direct access (such as Facebook). Google is also trying to compete against business-oriented social networks such as LinkedIn.
LinkedIn is the epitome of the Cathedral model of social networks. The user interface is clean and absent of frills. People use LinkedIn to network with business contacts for the purpose of recruitment, soliciting and providing services and, to a lesser extent, sharing business-related information. Google is hoping it can compete with LinkedIn by allowing for the separation of personal from business on Google+ through the use of its Circles feature.
They do this by running as applications within Facebook and they cordon off information and activities in their environments from the rest of your Facebook activities (and vice versa).
Google is always striving for cleaner and more comprehensive information about consumers, their preferences, connections and habits. The company collects all of its information using computer software executing sophisticated algorithms. The more you control the way the information is presented and, more importantly, the links between that information (i.e. people’s identifiers), the easier that information is to collect.
The last thing Google wants is the messy, anarchic environment of the Bazaar, where people can be anonymous, have multiple identities, interact with anyone they please, and remain unobserved.