Thoughts on Google+

(For those interested, I’m on Google+ at

I’ve been on Google+ less than a week, and I’m still calculating my approach. Setting up on a new social network always feels like the most fun part of social networking–exploring the profile options, making new connections, and organizing all of this information. If nothing else, it’s a blank slate with nothing but potential.

As I said on Twitter, I still don’t know that I have much interesting to say, but I can organize the crap out of people I could say it to if I did. With Google+’s Circles, I’m living the backwards, introverted, OCD social networking dream.

The most surprising part of the process has been groking my own reactions to the way Google+ expects me to think. It feels like Google+ is triangulating a position between Facebook’s seemingly out-of-control privacy and app sprawl and Twitter’s more limited, content-focused service. But since it’s neither Twitter nor Facebook, it’s also given me some insight into the different ways I use other social networks (or rather, how they’ve conditioned me to think).

On Facebook, I’m careful with who I friend. I try to only friend people I’ve met in real life (although I’ve posted in a few “post your Facebook” forum threads, and feel a little awkward having Facebook friends I barely know, but feel it would be rude to unfriend). Because it’s a two-way street, I’m also careful about who I add–usually, I wait for other people to send the request. It’s a filter, really–a logical rule I can use to avoid playing fast and loose with gut decisions. I would feel creepy if I added everyone within one or two degrees of separation without thinking, but unsure where I’d draw the line otherwise.

But, as reading between the lines of that last paragraph might imply, it’s not just about filter, it’s about my perspective on what each service aims to be. Facebook centers around the concept of a “profile,” so Interests, Friends, and all that good stuff feels like an intrinsic part of the public profile I’m presenting to the interwebs. Even the apps I use–or, rather, the chance that an app will misuse access to my profile–feels like a defining characteristic.

On Twitter, I’m looser with who I follow. This is where I follow the musicians, actors, writers, artists, prominent developers, etc. that I want to keep up with. Like Facebook, I often wait for acquaintences to follow me first, but I’m much more loose with that filter. Twitter is a one-way street, so I don’t feel like I’m intruding by following.

Since there’s no true “about me” page, my Follow list doesn’t seem like it’s intrinsically supposed to communicate something about myself or my connections. People only care about my tweets, because that’s the main way I’m defining myself. As long as apps don’t post to my feed, I’m a little less nervous about giving them access to Twitter than Facebook, because they’re going to be lost in someone else’s Tweet stream. (I have been feeling guilty that most of my non-reply Tweets anymore are GameMarx retweets, but that’s another issue.)

I feel like Facebook defines, while Twitter communicates. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. In fact, because they’re for different purposes, I’m not sure the comparison is even valid.

Google+ threw me for a loop because I instantly wanted to categorize it as either a clone of Facebook or Twitter. At first glance it’s trying to be Facebook. It’s a profile and supports more than 140-character text messages. It uses a language of connection (“in a circle”) like Facebook rather than action or content like Twitter (“following,” “followers,” “lists”). (Thankfully, Google+ isn’t using the overly chummy “Friends” terminology–I think that’s a very responsible choice given the connotation of the word, and its inaccuracy in the online world.)

Because of this, I keep wanting to think that Google+ connections should ideally be two-way, Facebook-style. Of course Circles act more like Twitter’s one-way follows, but this assumption immediately sent me into the fearful, cautionary approach I use with Facebook. Knowing this is a false assumption, I’d like to break this and use Google+ to build a wide, multi-tiered network of connections, something I don’t feel the urge to do on Twitter and don’t have the ability to do on Facebook.

I assume more people will be like me and feel the need to make two-way connections on Google+ than with Twitter. I assume many people will have a throw-away Circle that they filter out. (Actually, I guess people do this with Twitter now, but I don’t really use Lists.) Right now, I’m using Acquaintances as my catch-all, but I’m not filtering anything out of my stream. (Also, I guess I need to learn how to spell “acquaintances” now. It has an ‘a,’ not an ‘e.’)

Circles seem like an ingenious way of building privacy into the model. (Again, that’ll never work as a sales pitch, but I wish it did.) It provides organization, filtering, and privacy, but without exposing that in an obvious way. Additionally, it uses the Incoming feed as a loophole to allow a privacy model that’s based on pushing content in a medium that requires pulling content to prevent spam. (Time will tell if that actually works, or if Incoming undergoes some major changes.)

Facebook’s grouping tries to achieve the goal of privacy, but it doesn’t feel like it has the disconnected, ACL-quality that Circles has. On the plus side, Facebook allows you to explain to profile visitors how they’re connected to you. On the other hand, you can’t stick people in a Facebook group called “JERKS” and not look like… well, a jerk.

Of course, I’m looking at Google+ through rose-colored glasses right now. Every major piece of technology seems to go through an arc where it manages to do something awesome, builds to an apex and becomes a household name, and then goes on to become as maligned as the product it replaced. Partly, it’s because the application starts out as a blank slate, or as an exclusive club (it’s obscure; you’ve probably never heard of it). But in other cases, it’s because of deliberate choices the developers made. I submit Firefox, MySpace, and Facebook as examples.

I have to believe this is a corollary to Zawinski’s Law, or at least a version of the law for the next generation of applications. Every web application attempts to expand until one of two things happens:

  1. Believing that, because they’re popular, they can do no wrong, the developers will make boneheaded or outright anti-user decisions.
  2. Developers will provide users with more and more flexibility until such time as they can create retina-burning animated backgrounds or send out a hundred game requests a day to hapless followers.

The latter point, incidentally, is a natural consequence. As much as I gripe about Farmville, there are legitimate Facebook apps that wouldn’t exist without many of the API features it uses. All other factors being equal, services that provide this flexibility and openness will eventually usurp those who don’t.

So even if all goes well, eventually we’re all going to fall out of love with Google+ and we’re going to go chasing after the next social service that decides to embrace simplicity. At least until we realize all the things simplicity didn’t let us do.

And well but so anyway, I’m not going to make a prediction about Google+’s ultimate success or failure. None of my discussion here takes into account the big-picture choices that will make or break the service. I’d like it to fight the Facebook monster and win, both as a victory for privacy and for a more sensible approach to social networking. (I feel like the latter is partly the reason Facebook usurped MySpace.) I’d like it to do so without becoming a monster in the process.

Either way, I’m fascinated at how Circles represent a new take on the conventional wisdom of social network connections. I’m even more fascinated at how I have to adjust my initial assumptions to deal with it. I won’t say it’s necessarily the best take on social networking; that’s going to depend on how users decide to use it.