So, like, it’s Facebook but it isn’t owned by Facebook?
It’s sort of like Twitter, except it’s linked to your search history?

I’ve spent a few days playing around with Google+, the so-called Facebook-Killer, and thought I’d share a few observations and critiques.

1. I’m fascinated by the ways in which programmers attempt to codify ‘basic’ social interactions – which are, of course, extraordinarily complex.
Facebook thinks that everyone you meet is a Friend. My college buddies are Friends. My relatives are Friends. My co-workers are Friends. You can customize lists of Friends to limit access to certain information, but in the end you have dozens, if not hundreds, of Friends.
The language at play here is significant. “Your Aunt wants to be your Friend”. C’mon. What kind of monster refuses this request? I know many people who feel they’ve added ‘too many’ Friends on Facebook. You end up caught in the odd situation where you become less social when using social networks, as you attempt to manage the flow of information to a wide range of (actual) friends, family members, acquaintances, and near-strangers.

Google has decided that the people in your life can be grouped into various Circles. I have a close group of Friends, I have a large group of colleagues and co-workers, I have extended family members who have figured out the internet, etc. By placing each person into one or more Circles, you are forced to categorize relationships. These categories, in turn, will inevitably harden. I sorted you into a Circle that never sees my personal updates, and since you never see my personal updates, you and I don’t get to know each other very well.

I don’t want to suggest that either model is better or worse. Rather, I’m suggesting that the complex micro managing of social relations has always been a part of our daily experience. Google, like Facebook before it, is attempting to simplify and universalize this process. And it will inevitably run into the limitations at work in the real world.

(As a side note, I do wonder what kinds of designers and programmers are making the foundational decisions on projects like this. Specifically, I wonder – in all seriousness – about the arguments made in Benjamin Nugent’s ‘American Nerd’ connecting elements of the computing industry to the Asperger-Autism spectrum. The kinds of people who excel in an environment like Google are effectively coding their own views of human interaction into software aimed at a broader public. Identifying the ‘distortions’ in this perspective should tell us quite a bit about the software that is produced…)

 

 

2. In combining certain features of both Facebook and Twitter, I feel I am being driven towards one of two modes of ‘being’ on the internet. I have been considering these two modes for some time, and have thankfully been able to avoid making any significant decision. If Google+ becomes the ‘dominant’ social networking tool, I will likely be forced to make a decision. Here’s what I mean by that…

With Facebook’s emphasis on ‘Friends’, I feel like I can be quite discriminating in how I construct my network, and in how I allow others to incorporate me into their own networks. If I am uncomfortable with the general public viewing my updates and posted items, I can easily control access. Once I become your Facebook Friend, you can see what I share. My default position is to let Friends see what I do, rather than to grant ‘special’ access to a small few.

With Twitter, however, I am much more easily drawn into networks well beyond my immediate social circle. I can Follow the updates of my favourite comedians, or of respected scholars in my field, or of Twitter icons like Space-Nerd Wil Wheaton. From my perspective, this is a great bonus: I can choose to share my own content with a smaller circle, while benefiting from a network of more ‘public’ figures.

But with Google+, I have to confront the Twitter dynamic from a different angle. In combining the ‘active’ social networks of Friends and family from Facebook with the more ‘distant’ element of Twitter (which acts as a kind of news feed for the various public figures I choose to follow), I must face the fact that I now occupy the position of the semi-public node in any number of social networks. The same account I use for personal communication (Gmail, Gchat, etc.) and personal networking (the friends I place into particular Circles) is now also a kind of Twitter feed for anyone who may share my professional or personal interests. (I notice some early Google+ users restricting their networks in a Facebook-manner, and others have already added Twitter-style public figures to their Circles.)

Colleagues (and in my case, current and former students) may wish to add me to their own Circles, in order to follow my work. Now I’m using Google+ exactly as it seems to have been intended: every single posted item or status update goes through a quick filtering process, allowing me to determine which Circles will see each and every item I share. This is intended to be a significant upgrade from the Facebook model – I can control the visibility of every item in my feed, so as to satisfy the curiousity of the Twitter-style public while maintaining normal, ‘friendly’ relations with those who are actually close to me. (For the past year or two, I’ve had two simple links on my Firefox toolbar: one allows me to quickly share an item on Facebook, and the other allows me to share on Twitter. I know many people who use the two services identically.)

So with respect to social networking, the two modes of being on the internet are as follows:
Either I maintain ONE online identity and manage each and every element of this identity’s formation and development, OR I create at least TWO identities, in order to separate the personal from the professional, the public from the private.
Until now, using multiple platforms (MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) has made this split-identity quite simple. ‘Actual’ friends can follow me on one site, while co-workers and colleagues can follow me on another.

With Google+ however, one would have to create a second identity on the same platform. Real-life friends who seek me out on Google+ encounter the same profile found by students, colleagues and co-workers. Again – for most of us, this isn’t a huge issue. We simply restrict access across Circles, and control the visibility of any posted item. But I suspect that the Twitter element at work will inevitably create far more ‘semi-public’ figures. Will you allow potential clients or current students to connect to your profile (in any number of limited ways), or will you refer them to ‘another’ of your online selves (LinkedIn, Twitter, a personal website, or even a secondary Google+ account)?

Again – this isn’t a complaint about Google+. Rather, it’s an observation that different social networking sites have allowed or encouraged certain kinds of online behaviour for the past several years. As various tech giants attempt to combine various functions into a single technology, I think these questions about identity, privacy and control become more and more important.

Which sites do you use, and how, and why?