Sunday, July 03, 2011

Google+ and Circles, A First Critique Along Google's Own Research on Social

Shouting to people at large with a bullhorn is actually not what we in the User Experience community call a Humane experience; an experience that follows established comfortable human values. It is loud and intrusive and most people do not know how to actually make telling everyone everything be interesting or engaging or reflect well on them. Yet this is the main model our current social media has, and this model is why charismatic smart people end up working social media so well while most others get stuck in minutiae or end up taking all feedback as positive and thus become Internet trolls or drama magnets.

For me, the definitive text on the difference between how we as humans are comfortable structuring our social lives and what current social media imposes on us is explained in this slide set by Paul Adams about "The Real Social Network".

The gist basically is that:
      We have multiple social spheres in our lives, and we keep them separate.

      Within those spheres we have a few people that are close to us. We share information about our other spheres more with them.

The result is that we end up having multiple identities.

Meanwhile, our current social media tools say that we either must say everything publicly, and really have only one identifier that is 'us'. Twitter keeps it simple with one access level: you are open or hidden except to your subscribers. Facebook allows pretty fine grained control over who can see what you share, but makes it opaque to fine tune and hard to use the filters. LinkedIn says they know best what about your career should be accessible to whom. Pretty much all dating sites say everything is for everyone except maybe the pictures of your genitals or face that you can unlock for the people you like. Because there is very little access control or it is hidden, legion are thus the stories of sharing the wrong things with the world.

Google has just unveiled not only a lovely visual re-design, but their social layer on all their properties, Google+ (which one of my gay male friends immediately christened 'googlepoz' since it looks so much like the term 'HIV+' that in those circles gets abbreviated verbally to 'poz', and now I feel like I just explained a joke). Google+ tries to take the slideset above to heart and make a social newsfeed that respects the spheres of influence. Google calls those 'Circles' and they are basically groups of people. Google+ also exposes these circles right as you create status updates and posts and post media, thus making sending the right update to the right people a primary feature. No longer will your school pupils see your pictures of your male stripper nights -- or at least you can prevent this pretty easy if you assign your followers to the right groups well.

However, Googlepoz does ignore the second dimension from the slideset: even within your spheres you are closer to some people than others. If you just order your friends and followers into groups that go along the spheres of your life, you are still treating everyone inside those equally. It's like shouting at just your school instead of the world. Google+ default Circles does suggest that you should order your Circles by how close they are to you -- Family, Friends, Acquaintances -- but that still makes all Friends the same. You could split up your Circles, and make, for example, a Circle for Work and for Work Friends and for Close Work Friends, but this gets really difficult to keep track of after a while.

The third dimension Google+ ignores is that you actually have different identities to different people down to names and avatars. You can set which Circles can see which parts of your profile, but if you really have a public persona (I am a politician / captain of industry / social worker) that you like to keep separate from a more select group (I am in poly-amorous relationships / a needle-sharing counselor / a nudist) you really have to go the old route of having multiple accounts.

Still, in social media the User Interface is everything: people in general will not hunt deep for options, what is surfaced and visible is what will gets used. If you have a very sophisticated system of access controls, but bury it one layer deep, you might as well not have it. The masses, and we talk about social websites we are indeed talking massive amounts of people, simply have no time for options and deep controls. With Circles so front and center in this experience, Google has taken a compelling step to making a social media work more like humans do.

I still would like a couple of changes, though:
  • It needs a re-design to use less space. My Circles are filling up fast with a mixture of my Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Usenet (!) and everything else contacts, so the news stream and comments is getting big. Right now it simply is not using the page economically.

  • I should be able to designate which Circles are more important to me, and their updates should be more prominent. Perhaps by default an update should only show it's first 140 characters -- that has proven to work really well -- and in a dark gray font color. If it is an update from someone in a Circle I deem important, the update should show more of itself, and perhaps in a font color closer to black to be more prominent.

  • There is a problem with Circles being two-way: by putting someone in a Circle you are both allowing them access as well as subscribing to their news. LiveJournal has years of showing this is not an optimal model: just because someone asked to read something non-public of yours doesn't mean you want to see their updates. Still, splitting those things up in 'followers' and 'who you follow' like Dreamwidth does is a pain.

  • I would like to see Google allowing websites to use the Places and Circles as ways to enable whole separate social media networks complete with branding and colors and controls, sort of like Ning but more sophisitcated, allowing users and network creators control over how much of their new social network spills back into the general Googlepoz experience. Basically, let us use your networks to make our clubhouses of varying degrees of exclusivity.

Other than that, this effort pushes the features of social media further. Let's see how it plays out.