Blog: technology

Can Google+ Circles Clean Up Your Messy Relationships?

Google Circle: I'm really not sure.

Can you organize all your relationships?

Is Google+ actually going to make our lives (and privacy) more organized and compartmentalized? That seems to be its primary appeal. Where Facebook bolted on group management as an afterthought, Google+ encourages you to approach your online socializing via distinct circles from the very beginning. For those who are already well-organized and mindful of privacy and sharing, neither service offers much advantage over the other one in terms of real privacy protection. Google+ may be easier (and a lot more fun) to manage and setup, but both offer control over what you share and whom you share it with.

A few years back, when Facebook saw a rising threat from Twitter, they responded with numerous changes to make users’ status feeds real-time and to encourage widespread sharing by default. In other words, Facebook wanted you to tell the world about the pancakes you just made, as opposed to just your friends. This backfired, and Facebook has, in various ways, been twisting in the wind when it comes to privacy ever since then.

A Metaphor

Managing privacy on Facebook is a lot like trying to organize your very messy home by going to the Container Store to find boxes to sort and store everything. It’s feasible, but it’s a pain, and you wish you had been more organized in the first place. Google+ forces you to go to the Container Store and buy those boxes before you even move in. You can’t bring your stuff into the house until you’ve decided how to organize it.

That’s fabulous — Google has approached privacy from the ground up, as opposed to tacking it on after the fact as Facebook has done. There’s a catch, though: If you’re disorganized and you don’t care about messes, forced organization isn’t going to change that. You can organize everything in boxes before you move in to your house, but if you’re a messy person, within a month or two you’ll have crap all over the house again. Structure imposed up front can be as ineffective as structure imposed after the fact – if you’re allergic to structure, it’s useless. I’ve watched Hoarders.

All us geeks over here with our GTD methodologies and EFF memberships eat up this structured privacy stuff. And you could argue that the “Circles” concept itself is a more accurate and relatable metaphor for human interaction, and could encourage non-techies to think a little harder about what they’re posting online. There’s no shortage of interesting research on this topic; it’s odd, though, that the primary researcher behind Circles left for – you guessed it – Facebook.

Technology enthusiasts reside in a massive echo chamber. The “consumerization” of technology may be progressing rapidly, but that doesn’t mean that your mom or your cousin understand that online privacy isn’t an all-or-nothing game. Most people tend to share or they don’t; if selective sharing were an important feature for the average user, Twitter wouldn’t have over 100 million users.

Creating circles is one thing. Maintaining them, as Kevin Cheng notes in a perceptive post here, is entirely another. Google should be applauded for making privacy a focus of its new social network, but it remains to be seen whether Circles will be useful for the long term management of the real mess of human relationships.