Although I have not yet actually used Google+ (I’m waiting on my invite), I have been reading a lot about it, watching demo videos, and thinking about it. One feature that Google+ is offering to set itself apart from its ubiquitous rival, Facebook, is the concept of “circles”. The idea is that you define circles, subsets of your friends, that are defined by how you know or interact with them. You’ve got your coworkers, your ex-coworkers, your bowling buddies, your book club, and your ever ubiquitous “people I took a class or worked with once that no longer have anything in common with me, but that I was mildly curious to see what they are up to these days and so accepted their friend request”. I don’t know about you, but this latter group makes up the majority of my friend set.
One thing Google+ is using circles for is to allow you to optionally restrict who can see your status updates to only certain circles. While on the surface, this seems like a good idea, after giving it a little thought, I’m convinced that it is an inherently bad idea.
One of my favorite things about Facebook is that it gives me insights into other corners of people’s lives that they normally might not share with me. I love seeing photos from a marathon that someone has run or hearing about their time participating in a civil war reenactment. With Google+, those are exactly the kinds of posts that they might restrict to their subset of friends that they think are interested in those activities. The unrestricted “fire hose” format of sharing is one of the advantages of online social networking over how offline relationships work, where people only talk to you about things you have in common. Sometimes you end up finding a common interest with someone that you would never have found if you weren’t sharing your entire self with everyone.
I have this one Facebook friend that loves to read books about and post quotations supporting the myth that the United States’ Founding Fathers were all Christians and wanted the US to be an inherently Christian nation. This is one of my pet peeves because the profound intelligent foresight of the Founding Fathers to divorce government from religion is one of the things I most respect about them. So I butt rhetorical horns with this friend whenever I can. Most of his quotations can be found to be frauds simply by searching on Snopes, but others are genuine and need counterexamples. My point with this anecdote is that, using Google+, this friend would most likely only post his “Jefferson was a Baptist” nonsense to his likeminded churchgoers and never get any other viewpoints, resulting in a filter bubble, a polarizing ideology-strengthening echo chamber that’s not good for anyone.
Filter When Reading, Not Sharing
I love the idea of being able to filter my feed by circles. Back when I was using the Nambu Twitter client, one of the things I loved about it was the ability to categorize my followees into groups. I’d never miss a tweet from someone in my “Friends” group, but would often just “mark all as read” for the entire “Celebs” group. It was great. I had progressive cascading layers of contacts that, depending on how much time I had for social media consumption, I’d read in order from “most important to me” all the way down to Ashton Kutcher.
The way I think social media works best is to share everything to everybody and then let each consumer filter their incoming feeds by what is important to them. Google+, should it win its battle with Facebook, may ruin what is most beautiful about online social networking.
Why Google Won’t Change This
After thinking about this issue a bit more, it occurred to me why Google has done this…and it’s not to make a better user experience. You see, Facebook collects information about you based on which links you click on in your feed. If it notices that you tend to click on political stories hosted by entities owned by News Corp, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re politically conservative, and thus, they can show you ads targeted at political conservatives.
This is where Google’s genius insight comes in. On Facebook, in order for them to gather subtle ad-targeting information about you, you must actually use Facebook. On Google+, on the other hand… Say you sign up for Google+ just to check it out, but aren’t that big into online social networking and you never go back. You’d think they couldn’t collect information about your interests, right? Wrong. With this new circle-restricted sharing, they can! Let’s say that three of your Google+ friends share links about pottery and restrict them to circles that you are in. Voila! Google can deduce that you are interested in pottery and can, if you are logged into Google, show you pottery related ads on any website using Google Adsense across the internet. Your friends, not just you, are giving Google information about you by using circle-restricted sharing.
The advertising genius behind this subtle social networking “feature” is astonishing. After all, advertising is where Google’s revenue comes from. Let’s just hope that Facebook doesn’t borrow this idea and ruin their free spigot of social sharing.