Circles: Facebook’s reality failure is Google+’s opportunity

Way back when I joined Facebook I was under the impression that it was the social network where people play themselves. On Facebook, you were supposed to be “real.” So I figured, OK, this is where I don’t friend everyone indiscriminately; this is where I only connect with people I really know.

I stuck with that for a little while. But there were two big problems.

First, I was bombarded with friend requests from people I barely knew or didn’t know at all. Why? It soon became clear that large numbers of people weren’t approaching Facebook with the reality principle in mind. They were playing the usual online game of racking up big numbers to feel important. “Friend count”” was the new “unique visitors.”

Then Facebook started to get massive. And consultants and authors started giving us advice about how to use Facebook to brand ourselves. And marketing people began advocating that we use Facebook to sell stuff and, in fact, sell ourselves.

So which was Facebook: a new space for authentic communication between real people — or a new arena for self-promotion?

I could probably have handled this existential dilemma. And I know it’s one that a lot of people simply don’t care about. It bugged me, but it was the other Facebook problem that made me not want to use the service at all.

Facebook flattens our social relationships into one undifferentiated blob. It’s almost impossible to organize friends into discrete groups like “family” and “work” and “school friends” and so forth. Facebook’s just not built that way. (This critique is hardly original to me. But it’s worth repeating.)

In theory Facebook advocates a strict “one person, one account” policy, because each account’s supposed to correlate to a “real” individual. But then sometimes Facebook recommends that we keep a personal profile for our private life and a “page” for our professional life. Which seems an awful lot like “one person, two accounts.”

In truth, Facebook started out with an oversimplified conception of social life, modeled on the artificial hothouse community of a college campus, and it has never succeeded in providing a usable or convenient method for dividing or organizing your life into its different contexts. This is a massive, ongoing failure. And it is precisely where Facebook’s competitors at Google have built the strength of their new service for networking and sharing, Google+.

Google+ opened a limited trial on Tuesday, and last night it hit some sort of critical mass in the land of tech-and-media early adopters. Invitations were flying, in an eerie and amusing echo of what happened in 2004, when Google opened its very first social network, Orkut, to the public, and the Silicon Valley elite flocked to it with glee.

Google+ represents Google’s fourth big bite at building a social network. Orkut never took off because Google stopped building it out; once you found your friends there was nothing to do there. Wave was a fascinating experiment in advanced technology that was incomprehensible to the average user, and Google abandoned it. Buzz was (and is) a Twitter-like effort that botched its launch by invading your Gmail inbox and raiding your contact list.

So far Google+ seems to be getting things right: It’s easy to figure out, it explains itself elegantly as you delve into its features, it’s fast (for now, at least, under a trial-size population) and it’s even a bit fun.

By far the most interesting and valuable feature of Google+ is the idea of “circles” that it’s built upon. You choose friends and organize them into different “circles,” or groups, based on any criteria you like — the obvious ones being “family,” “friends,” “work,” and so on.

The most important thing to know is that you use these circles to decide who you’ll share what with. So, if you don’t want your friends to be bugged by some tidbit from your workplace, you just share with your workplace circle. Google has conceived and executed this feature beautifully; it takes little time to be up and running.

The other key choice is that you see the composition of your circles but your friends don’t: It’s as if you’re organizing them on your desktop. Your contacts never see how you’re labeling them, but your labeling choices govern what they see of what you share.

I’m sure problems will surface with this model but so far it seems sound and useful, and it’s a cinch to get started with it. Of course, if you’re already living inside Facebook, Google has a tough sell to make. You’ve invested in one network, you’re connected there; why should you bother? But if, like me, you resisted Facebook, Google+ offers a useful alternative that’s worth exploring.

The ideal future of social networking is one that isn’t controlled by any single company. But social networks depend on scale, and right now it’s big companies that are providing that.

Lord knows Google’s record isn’t perfect. But in this realm I view it as the least of evils. Look at the competition: Facebook is being built by young engineers who don’t have lives, and I don’t trust it to understand the complexity of our lives. It’s also about to go public and faces enormous pressure to cash in on the vast network it’s built. Twitter is a great service for real-time public conversation but it’s no better at nuanced social interaction than Facebook. Apple is forging the One Ring to rule all media and technology, and it’s a beaut, but I’ll keep my personal relationships out of its hands as long as I can. Microsoft? Don’t even bother.

Of the technology giants, Google — despite its missteps — has the best record of helping build and expand the Web in useful ways. It’s full of brilliant engineers who have had a very hard time figuring out how to transfer their expertise from the realm of code to the world of human interaction. But it’s learning.

So I’ll embrace the open-source, distributed, nobody-owns-it social network when it arrives, as it inevitably will, whether we get it from the likes of Diaspora and Status.net or somebody else. In the meantime, Google+ is looking pretty good. (Except for that awful punctuation-mark-laden name.)

MORE READING:

Gina Trapani’s notes on “What Google+ Learned from Buzz and Wave”

Marshall Kirkpatrick’s First Night With Google+

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Comments

  1. Great post!

    In my view Facebook suceeded where Friends Reunited failed.
    I believe Friends Reunited could of been as big as Facebook had it simply not decided to charge ‘friends’ to connect with one another. That was the killer mistake.

    Facebook took off as it worked like MAGIC connecting old friends together. (and it was Free)
    For me its a more personal social network and the one account policy helps it keep that way.
    Facebook Pages allow you to promote your business away from your personal profile.
    This works well for alot of people.

    Twitter works well for business because its instant, delivers alot of information quickly and of course its great for generating web traffic.
    Its also fun on a personal level and its easy to connect/disconnect with people if you feel things are getting a little ‘spammy’.

    With regards to google+1 TBH I haven’t had a look at it properly yet.
    Its a fine balance I think to get these things to take off.
    At the end of the day, businesses will loss interest if “normal” users don’t engage. (or whats the point?)
    That might be its downfall. Its got to be SIMPLE for it to work, or people just won’t get it.
    Time will tell I guess. (maybe another google flop who knows?)
    But if its a goer, then hold on to your hats!

    P.S. Any invites please? LOL

    Mike

  2. Paula Helm Murray

    I hold my name place on Facebook to keep it mine, that is all. And if I didn’t do facebook, I’d have no contact with my niece and her family.

    Otherwise, I glance at it, occasionally answer friends and etc. and otherwise don’t use it for much. I use LiveJournal much more for writing about daily events, thoughts, and etc. that aren’t writing stuff.

    The new writing stays private until I sell it. Except for a couple of beta/editing readers.

  3. ms. joy

    Hi! Can I follow you? I hate e-mail subscriptions, but I’ll like to see your links in my google buzz..

  4. Lee

    Google+ 2011 = LiveJournal 2000. LJ has always had the ability to build custom filters so that you control who sees what you post. So does Dreamwidth. Yes, this is a critical feature. No, it’s not new.

    That said, if Google+ develops the utility of Facebook without the repeated STUPID privacy fiascos, and without FB’s ghodawful habit of changing the user interface without warning, I’ll walk away from FB and never look back.

  5. I build lists on Facebook to manage posts and photos shared, and use groups to create my own smaller networks withing the Facebook platform. I look forward to seeing what Google has developed and hope it will stick!

    Great post!

  6. Interesting post and very timely. I just told my nearly-15-year-old daughter she could finally have that much coveted Facebook page she wanted. Know what she said? She doesn’t want it anymore. Being “out there” is scary, she told me, and besides, everyone she knows that has a FB account wishes they didn’t because it’s a waste of time. I’ve got one, and I think I’m about to get rid of mine too. We’re connecting, sure, but none of it is real.

  7. yo

    How are google’s circles different than contact lists in facebook? You can use contact lists to organize your “friends” however you want and limit what each contact list sees including your content, profile data, and posts. Is it just that google has executed the UI better? Is it that most people don’t realize there’s a way to do this on facebook? Very interested in your opinion as to what is really new about google+ circles. I am myself a professed facebook hater but mostly because of their dumb interface, horrible release methods, and lack of conern for their users…

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Circles: Facebook’s reality failure is Google+’s opportunity – He likes the ability to group people differently, something Facebook sort of has, but never made easy. I like the idea too, but I think they could go further – sometimes you might want the type of relationship you have to be public. I'm not on G+, so I don't know if that's possible. Can you make circle names public sometimes? [...]

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