Facebook and Google: Physics for Poets and Physics for Physicists

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6 March 2012
Donald Light

When I was an undergraduate, a few years ago, my college had a very strong Physics Department. It also had a graduation requirement that all students had to take one science course.

This presented the Physics Department with a quandary, because its introduction physics course was rigorous and was designed for students who would become physics majors, as well as the odd engineering or chemistry major. At the same time, the Physics Department wanted its share of liberal arts majors who had to take that one science course.

What to do?It created a second intro physics course, for non-scientists with very high entertainment value lectures (funny contraptions) and funny test questions (few of which can be shared in a family-oriented blog such as this one).

The non-science major physics course became wildly popular. And the rigorous course remained rigorous. Inevitably, the former course became known as Physics for Poets, and the latter as Physics for Physicists.

It’s impossible for a technology analyst (like me) not to think about Facebook and Google; and the extraordinary impact they have had on how consumers and businesses spend their time and money on the web. Will Facebook’s IPO follow Google’s IPO trajectory? Will Google+ ever be a serious competitor to Facebook? And on and on.

In pondering such questions, I finally realized that Facebook and Google aren’t really competitors—just as the two intro physics courses were not competing for the same pool of students.

Facebook is Physics for Poets, and Google is Physics for Physicists.Facebook is designed for sharing, for feeling (aka friending and liking), for enabling each person to continuously expand the expression of self. Google is built by engineers (aka geeks) for people who want to get in, get some information, and move on (or occasionally stay and play).

Of course Facebook has its share of engineers who make the thing work, but there is NOTHING about the site that says “Welcome, fellow geeks”. Google has its share of engaging apps: Google Earth, Google Maps, even Gmail. But the guiding hand is always a technical hand, “Look at something cool that tech created.”

So the question is not who will win, Facebook or Google. The basic question answers itself: there will always be poets and there will always be physicists (in different bodies or even in the same body). The more interesting question is who will be better over time in monetizing the value provided to poets and to physicists.

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