Thursday, August 04, 2011

Reflections on Social Networks and How People Use Them

People keep asking me about my opinion on Google plus (G+). In the days since launching, I've accumulated well over 700 followers on plus, far more than my meager 400 odd followers on Buzz. The service has signed up 20 million users, which is remarkable for a social network. So has Google proven Paul Buchheit wrong? Will it indeed beat Facebook before it lands on the moon?

Google has placed privacy front-and-center on G+. To many, especially the early adopters that have populated G+, this is the holy grail, being able to segregate your friends into tiny tiny groups, including some groups of one. It serves as filtering, grouping, and no doubt some other features I haven't thought about all at once.

In practice, however, Circles are clumsy. You make a decision every time you add a person into one of your circles. I can't even keep the default "Friends" and "Following" straight. And maybe I want to think that people who are in my "Family" should also get to see everything that "Friends" see. Talking to a few people I know, the reaction seems to be: "In practice, most people can only cope with one or two groups." Great, but the default is 4: "Friends," "Following", "Family", and "Acquaintances." The result is sometimes I find myself wanting to add someone but faced with the Paradox of Choice, I end up not adding that person. This seems to be a fairly small matter, a mere resetting of defaults should fix it, right?

The reality is, that's not where the value of social networks lie. Let's take the typical use case. You meet someone while traveling, and wanting to stay in touch, she says, "Add me on Facebook." You say, "No, add me to G+ instead!" She dutifully visits G+ and adds you. But wait, not only does she add you, she adds you to the "Smucks I met while traveling" circle. Now you only get her public posts + anything that she remembers to add to the circle while posting, which is never. The purpose of staying in touch with someone you just met randomly just went poof. Even worse, when she went to add you on G+, she was reminded that she barely knows you, rather than you being that guy who was interesting enough that she wanted to use one of her precious 5,000 slots on Facebook on. I don't see the travel crowd being eager to switch to G+ for that reason any time soon. "Friend me on Facebook" has a very specific meaning, while "Add me to one of your many circles on G+" will forever leave the two of you guessing whether one of you slotted the other into an irrelevant circle, never to be heard from again.

You might think that this is of no consequence, but my argument is that these casual contacts are probably your most valuable ones on social networking sites! When I was single and dating, the act of changing my relationship status on Facebook announced to all my friends and casual acquaintances that I was single. On G+, you would default to announcing this to just your friends (or more likely, not announcing it at all). Now, on Facebook, there's apparently a way to make such changes not so public, but since few people know how to do that, nobody does, so the norm is that relationship statuses change publicly, and everyone makes these announcements. By making such announcements private by default on G+, anyone on G+ who actually does say, "Hi, I'm single now." is actually saying, "Hi, I'm single and desperate." No one's going to actually signal that. As a result of my relationship status, people started to set me up with dates. The thing is, these set-ups did not come from my closest friends! They came from the periphery of my social networks, in some cases from people I had completely forgotten adding to my social network! The book Connected explains why this happens. Basically, your friends who are close are usually exposed to all the opportunities that you already have, so you rarely find new opportunities from your close friends. It's your casual acquaintances that provide you with new opportunities. So by forcing all your friends into one "Circle", Facebook will actually provide you with more utility, which in my opinion is why even though Facebook long had groups, nobody actually used it --- you actually lose value when you segregate your contacts in this fashion. By placing it front and center, G+ is making a mistake and doing its users a disservice.

What about the digital detritus that people love to complain about, such as baby pictures that clearly no one cares about to even click "like" on them? Well, those are most useful to your loose contacts! Someone calling you up or sending you e-mail to catch up (either socially or for business reasons) but who isn't close to you would find the fact that you just got married or just had kids or just celebrated their birthdays very useful, whereas your close friends/family already know this stuff.

I think blindly implementing what users say they want in the context of social networks without considering how defaults are setup and how users tend to use social networks makes the resulting network less useful to its users. To a large extent I don't even think Facebook fully understands what it is about their current setup that makes them so successful (though at least one ex-Facebooker has it right). Ultimately, while G+ might prove to be useful (as a substitute for say, Friendfeed/Buzz/Twitter when RSS input is finally implemented), I consider it no threat to Facebook in terms of overall effectiveness and usefulness as long as G+ chooses to put Circles front and center.
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