Is Google+ solving the wrong problem?

Traffic seems pretty light on Google+, even in my circle of technoliterate Silicon Valley friends. Why? Partly it’s because G+ is solving the wrong problem.

The origins of G+’s approach can be found in a thoughtful presentation by Paul Adams – The real life social network v2. In it, he argues that Facebook’s concept of friendship is not nuanced enough, using the example of Debbie, a swimming teacher who’s friends with her 10-year old students, and also some guys who work in a gay bar and post risqué photos. The proposed solution is G+ circles, so you can control exactly who sees what.

There’s good news and bad news about this approach. The bad news is that it doesn’t work. The crazy will always out, and the Internet will always find a way to get it to everyone. One of my friends started up a blog to present a staid and professional image, but within a few months the intelligent, entertaining and highly non-pc rants had slipped in. And if our teacher friend is hanging out with a fast crowd, you can bet that will get out to her class somehow. Plus, once you start thinking about detailed control, you never stop. Who should be able to see who you’re friends with? What time of day you posted, and who commented when? That way lies madness.

But the good news is that it doesn’t matter. Only a few people follow your status updates, and they have figured out your weird views or predilections already, maybe before you have. Are you worried about posting too much about your child / pet / marathon / claim to the throne of France? Don’t be. Your Facebook friends can handle hearing about you in a different context, and part of the fun of FB is seeing that, and occasionally seeing everyone else’s friends. It’s part of the appeal of weddings, too.  G+ ends up like a season of “Friends” without any guest stars.  We already have means for keeping in touch with cohesive circles of friends – they’re called dinner parties, game nights, pub crawls and email.

What about saying the wrong thing to some of the group? Miscommunications on FB are like crashes in NASCAR – fun to watch, part of the sport, and don’t often hurt.

Isn’t FB an evil profit-maximizing corporation? Sure, but the profit-maximizing part is the key. FB’s modus operandi has always been to push privacy concerns to the edge, wait for Diaspora or G+ to do free user-base testing for them, and then pull back. As I’ve said before, billion dollar companies that are paying any kind of attention don’t let themselves be dismantled. Privacy scares on FB won’t stop people from using it any more than urban legends about hooked-hand killers will stop teens from making out.

This is not to say that everything’s perfect with FB. People in social relationships with tricky dynamics like teacher / student may not want to friend their juniors.  FB could do better too – it’s very easy to hide someone and not see their posts by default, less easy to set it up so they don’t see yours. But the required tweaks would be minor – maybe a secret “courtesy friend” status so you could accept a friend request to avoid offense, but not have to share anything. And as soon as Google+ works out the kinks, Zuckerberg will get right on it.


One Response to “Is Google+ solving the wrong problem?”

  1. Another post about a Facebook post (repost). | A new blog but I don't know what to call it yet Says:

    […] Philip Apps As far as I can tell, there’s a small dedicated group that uses it, but mostly it’s ignored. Some thoughts from a couple of years ago - and […]

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