Running In Social Circles

We all know that high school never ends and this is no less true for social media, where we still run in pretty much the same cliques we used to. As we grow older, we make new IRL friends at different jobs, for different interests, and for different events, forming even more cliques. Because of the prevalence of social networks across the globe, it is now easier to communicate with masses of people all at once. We each get a soapbox to voice our opinion into a virtual room, empty or not. Often our voices will not agree with every other voice in our circles. There lies the problem.

Privacy concerns come up once you start to gather enough groups of friends. There are things that would be appropriate to say to one group that may not be with another. There are sensitive topics that should not be shared for fear of bias and persecution. And then there are things that should just not be said online to begin with. Ex-coworkers from may not want to hear you complain about how your job there sucked, for example.

Social networks have long provided the means to manage friends, but have wrestled with the fact that while people beg for privacy controls, they just aren’t inclined to ever use them. Few of us want to spend a couple of hours sorting through our list of friends to sort them into groups. I happen to be compulsive enough to have done that a while ago, although I rarely, if ever, filter my posts to only appear to certain lists. But every once in a while I have to do a sweep through my friend lists because I know I’m absent minded enough to forget to assign one or two friends to a group.

Google+ has recently appeared, highlighting the desire people had for ease of managing friends and filtering outgoing content. Those that have jumped into it right away have begun adding friends into what Google calls Circles with an easy drag and drop interface. The iPhone interface does not carry this same easy management. While it would not make or break Google+, a bad app implementation can keep it from growing further. On iOS5, the app just crashes immediately, so I have not been able to test it. 10 million users in two weeks is very impressive, but at some point the growth plateaus. The question is when will it happen and what will cause it. Google appears in front of almost every online user’s eyes at least once a day so it immediately has a much higher potential user base than Facebook could ever dream of. Still, it takes a long time to gather friends and reorganize them into lists. You will have people who refuse to move onto Yet Another Social Network, especially one that isn’t on every billboard and TV ad. Facebook has already established itself as the social backbone of the Internet and trying to make another is akin to making another global DNS infrastructure and getting everyone to use both. I have always considered Facebook to be for communicating with real life friends and Twitter for my geek interests. It seems as if something that could marry the two would be a hit if it could communicate with both. Without an API at the time of this writing, Google+ is missing a lot of the apps that make it fun to use a social network.

Facebook Friend Lists and Google+ Circles share many of the same features. Both allow you to filter posts by groups, both allow friends in more than one list. What neither allows is sub-lists, which would allow me to hypothetically divide people into something like Workplace-Runners and Workplace-Geeks so that I could post topics about running to one and geeky topics to another. Chances are, however, that if I talk to runners or geeks at work, I’ll talk to them somewhere else. Having just Workplace, Runners, and Geek lists with overlap capability meets this same need, without the mass confusion that sub-lists would bring. I tend to break my friend lists up according to how someone came into my life. I know people from grade school, high school, various jobs, tech contacts on Twitter, groups of friends, and family. All my lists are broken up that way and quite a few of those circles overlap in real life. Because of the way Facebook Chat displays, I only ever have a person in one list.

While such a big deal has been made of Google+ Circles, I’m still puzzled at how those same people didn’t make an effort to use Facebook Friend Lists and found it easier to complain that Facebook gave no privacy. These lists are actually all the same and carry no different weight in one social network than another, or even in the same social network. Yet in life we inherently share different things with different group by default. Circles could be though of as falling into something like this…

Have met
Seriously Dating
Living together
Domestic Partner

You can immediately see that someone from the workplace might be someone who has permission to give you a professional recommendation. This is something that LinkedIn naturally handles, but which does not exist for Facebook. There is a lot of room for Facebook to take over in this area. BranchOut seems to be making a play at this space and Monster has recently taken a stab at it.  It remains to be seen whether this area can explode on social networks outside of LinkedIn.

There is another group we’re not thinking about in all this. Out of my 300+ friends, there still remains 6 billion+ other people who may look at my profile and want an idea as to who I am. Special care must be taken with this very large group, because these are the strangers, in some cases enemies, which we have chosen no to let into our life. These may be people who have permission to see your resume, where workplace people do not. Someone who is job hunting may not want their coworkers or bosses to know they are seeking other employment. There are countless reasons to filter your content. Another reason for maintaining circles is that people often drift in and out of different circles in your life. Someone who gets dropped from “In A Relationship With” should be filtered from certain content when that change is made.

The fragmentation of the social networking scene is already taking its toll. Google+ has now come on the scene and although I got an invitation early on, along with the ability to send out invites, I have not yet fully configured the service for my needs. First of all, the task of manually moving 500+ people into appropriate Circles is a deterrent. Then there is the fact that this is another location to check in with after Facebook and Twitter, which I already can’t keep up with. I know there are a lot of people who feel the same and Google+ page view numbers are already beginning to drop. While it has taken longer to happen than I expected, it is inevitable, since Google+ serves a very geek niche. Without games and other inane uses for a social network API, the average user was bound to get bored quickly. And with that, Google’s aspirations to quickly reach a billion users will evaporate.

After enough social networks are out there, each requiring you set up friend lists, dividing friends into groups needs to be automated. Individuals’ profiles should help define their place in various social circles. All this batch processing of contacts can take hours to weeks for an existing account, so a more manageable form would be to have users assign a contact their circle at the time of creation. Plaxo requests that you place a new contact into a group of Family, Friend, Coworker, or Other group. This spreads out the load of managing this task over the lifetime of the service. Another system that does this is Hollrback, which granularly let’s you define groups that have access to certain contact attributes and add the contact to one of those groups before the data is exposed. An AI should be able to take users profiles, check their relations to others in your friends and place them in appropriate circles.  This is already done when social networks suggest friends you may know.  They just aren’t telling you where they think you know them from.

In all of the growth in social, it’s most surprising that Google has been so far behind and made so many blunders in attempting to get to where everyone else just kind of fell into the game.  Google has plenty of algorithms for processing all sorts of data, but they just can’t seem to get people right.  My hopes are pinned on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ continuing to be front runners that compete and innovate to the benefit of society.