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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.


ArC said...

I actually do segregate my FB contacts and occasionally vary up who can read a specific wall posts - some are really only interesting to my work friends, or I just don't want to explain an inside joke or something.

Rifkele said...

But there is another side to this: because I have circles, I am much more willing to add a huge number of people. In FB I am inhibited because I am afraid they will fill up my news feed and I'll miss the announcement that one of my best friend's dad just died. So though the "outer circles" are less important in G+, at least for me,there are more of them, and they are more populated.

Shalmanese said...

I've noticed the opposite which is that less and less of my peers are choosing to make their relationship status public on Facebook anymore. This is largely to avoid the drama that happens when that status changes.

Piaw Na said...

Yes, and those people (who chose not to make their relationship status public) lose the additional benefit that Facebook would have granted them over G+, in which case they might as well use G+ for dating. :-)

Piaw Na said...

The size of the social network isn't as important as the quality. For instance, I have a lot fewer followers on Buzz, but they're a lot more interesting than the ones on G+.

Brendan Miller said...

That feels pretty accurate to me. I mostly still use facebook for anything social.

The one use I have for google+ right now, is my "nerds" group on google+. I can post highly technical stuff there that would be off putting to say, cute girls on my facebook friends list.

Thomas Hawk said...

As a photographer Facebook is clunky -- and just about everybody is a photographer these days as evidenced by how popular photos are on Facebook.

On Facebook they give you microscopic little thumbnails. There is an integration with flickr where you get the same thumbnails but the system is totally borked and facebook will post your same flickr upload 8 times in a row or something.

By contrast photos posted to G+ look *great*. Big oversized thumbnails that blow up to the best looking lightbox on the web if/when you click on them.

Aesthetically the experience is far better.

So far on G+ I've yet to have the sort of spammy experience that I get on facebook either. I don't have the "guess what your best friend just said about you" app posting spam to my G+ stream like what happens to my facebook wall. Maybe this will come to G+ in time.

The biggest feature though is that I can rest assured that I will see *everything* from the people that I care the most about by putting them in my superfriends circle. On facebook these people get buried and I miss alot of what they post. If my friend is a kick ass photographer and I want to see everything they post, this is more important to me than seeing some casual acquaintance's 42 posts today about why Newt Gingrich is a nitwit. Facebook doesn't give me easy tools to manage and prioritize my relationships and content consumption. Google's circles do.

Also Google circles encourage more responsible posting. People think twice about what they post. If you're too noisy people *will* put you in one of those noisy people circles and you'll be ignored. This is positive. It forces people to be more thoughtful about what they post. I'd rather read something insightful and interesting from Tom Anderson once a day than get 25 messages about everything somebody did all day long.

On facebook I only have two choices, drop you totally or be forced to listen to everything you say based on facebook's algorithm (which frequently misfires for me).

Piaw Na said...

That's interesting. My impression is that serious photographers go to Smugmug or Flickr, nobody uses either Facebook or PicasaWeb to show case great work. A lot of photographers complain about not being able to pick the background color on PicasaWeb.

In my case, since I can't manage Circles right, both my Facebook and G+ streams are equally bad.

Andrew said...

I believe the "Circles" are a hook. It gives (regular, non-super-geek) users a distinguishing feature to talk about. At a restaurant last month I heard some young person explaining G+ to friends: "It's like Facebook, but way better because you can organize people better and separate your family from friends!" It gives G+ an easy elevator pitch. Every social network needs some sort of hook to gain initial momentum and to be explainable to the average person:

Myspace - where you can talk to your favorite bands
Facebook - connect with all of your college classmates
Twitter - social networking using simple text messaging
Google+ - Like Facebook but with effective group controls

It doesn't matter that most of these "hook" features are only used by a few percent of the user base as time goes by. What's important is getting a strong start and being able to be pitched in 15 seconds.

I find circles remarkably useful for *reading*, less so for posting. Facebook's lists/groups are awful for reading because they're buggy, hard to manage, and only go back about three days.

Piaw Na said...

I don't think that Circles is anywhere as good for reading as much as Google Reader. I do most of my reading on Google Reader, and I find Facebook's group controls excellent. (Facebook group pages are very very well done, and quite a bit better than Circles, in that you don't manually add people, you let people add themselves but you have moderator access to kick people off)

TomN said...

Hey Piaw. I'm agree with you on most of your points.

As you may remember, I did some early work on Google social networks (2003-2004), hold some related patents and IMO Google made some really key mistakes with their initial release of Circles. Not sure if you caught my critique.

Basically, Circles can't really isolate circles from each other, so the feature is kind of pointless. (I have some other nits in there, too.)

Piaw Na said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for dropping by. I read your critique and it's accurate, but I personally don't think it's deadly. These are all "a mere matter of programming" as the case may be. I think the fundamental concepts of circles makes G+ as a social network ineffective, which is deadly to its success, but obviously, it's hard to say for now.