Does the world need more telegenic talent shouting opinions at one another? Google thinks it does.
In a blogpost today, Google's YouTube team announces "Versus," which it says is all about "liberating opinion with Google+ Hangouts." The company notes that Google+ Hangouts are being used in amazing ways, perhaps even surpassing what Google originally imagined: Such as interviews of the President, or to "connect underwater in a project to photograph the ocean floor." Now Hangouts are becoming something new—a source for content, news, and perhaps a mechanism for some social change.
Starting the whole thing off is a debate about the War on Drugs—how very 1986—with Richard Branson on hand to provide opinion and argument, alongside the comedian Russell Brand, Wikileaker Julian Assange, and other experts. That makes it sound sort of like Bill Maher's HBO show except, you know, online. To start, Google's chosen a highly contentious issue which is bound to attract global attention thanks to differing laws and experiences relating to drug use around the world—from the U.S.'s restrictive regulations to Portugal's successful and experimental leniency. That's almost certainly a deliberate move to drive traffic from the four corners of the world.
There will also be input from the Hangout viewers through real-time voting to "let the speakers know their arguments are resonating with viewers," and even before its started there's scope to discuss the idea and issues on the Versus page. There's no guarantee that the debate will skirt some of the problems that Obama's Hangout exposed, with the President dodging controversial and popular-voted marijuana questions, but this is a series. It is possible that Google's partners Intelligence2 (which calls itself "an organization committed to revitalizing the art of live debate") will let things evolve as the series progresses, and tackle any issues like this.
To see how a much less formal, centrally organized Hangout content creation scheme works there's a different example in Steve Garfield's "The Road to SXSW, A LIVE Daily G+ Hangout Show." Garfield, an author and presenter of his own online TV show, is suggesting using a Hangout to present info and enable group discussions about the events at the upcoming SXSW show one week in advance. That's undeniably using Hangouts as a vehicle to generate and share new content and discussion about a very timely topic.
Garfield's endeavor is modest, but Versus itself is a huge and expensive effort designed to promote G+ as a medium for a wholly new type of online interaction—a kind of walled-garden debate in a much bigger digital public space with some celebrity opinion-makers on board. Think of it as one of those TV debate shows, where an invited audience can pitch the occasional question, or perhaps questions pre-submitted by email or Twitter can be presented...only in digital space, with a greater element of real time feedback.
But let's be honest: The whole idea is to leverage the power of Hangouts (which is something that perhaps Google wouldn't have really anticipated beforehand) to create new traffic and motivate users of G+—in very much the same way those TV debates are all about driving up TV viewing figures and thus advertising revenue. Google+ has very recently faced criticism, with allegations it's a ghost town of signed-up but inactive users, and a damning stat that the average G+ netizen only spends 3 minutes there every month. Google's banking so much on G+'s social powers to inject dynamism and life into seemingly every online service it offers that it can't afford for G+ to be a flop, nor merely to become a lifeless echo chamber.
That's not to say Versus itself isn't worthy. It's an interesting example of how a new kind of media can grow inside this new digital environment, generating real news and content all by itself.
Update: A Google spokesman answered our question about the real purpose of Versus by sayinh:
Google is very interested in bringing debate to a mass audience using the Web as a platform. Versus provides an opportunity for Web users anywhere to have a share of voice, and for that voice to be heard by the world. In terms of how this will work logistically —- the style of this event is very different from the Obama hangout. The event takes on an Oxford debating style and the strong personalities on board will hopefully make for a hard hitting and lively debate.
Tackling the question of how Versus will work tactically Google explained that
The Versus +page will host engaging content where users can submit questions. Intelligence Squared will posting all the content (they are one of the world’s premier debating forums and it is their area of expertise). This will likely drive engagement on the +page and traffic to Google+.
[Image: Flickr user windsordi]