Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Google+ Solves the Social Privacy Problem by Making Friending Very Complicated

I’ve been using Google+ for a little more than a day now, and I think I’m just starting to grasp how this “Circles” concept works. The idea is to give users much more control over who they share with, and to allow for unbalanced relationships (where one person cares more about the other) in a way that mutual friending doesn’t allow.

Attempting to describe real-world relationships more accurately is a worthy goal, and Google’s approach sets it apart from the competition. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand.

Here’s my basic summary of the Google+ sharing/friending model, developed after scratching my head real hard and asking for input from other Google+ users. (Note: This is not my review of the service, just a sincere attempt to understand how it works.)

  1. If I add someone to a Circle, that means I push my content to them when I share with that Circle. It also means I see their public content in my stream.
  2. If someone adds me, I then see their posts in my “Incoming” stream but not in my Circles until I head over to my Circle management tool or notifications tab and add them back.
  3. If I put someone that I never share with in a Circle, and they don’t share back with me, the only relationship we have is that I see their public content.
  4. When I click on the home button, I see an amalgamated stream of the people in all the Circles I have shared my own content with (based on most-recent comments and maybe some kind of relevance weighting, but I’m not sure).
  5. Update: I don’t want to get too much more complicated here, but there’s been more good information and clarification added to the comments on my original Google+ post since I published this article.

For context, here are some other social friending and following models:

  • Facebook is fundamentally built around one-to-one friending. It does offer friend lists, groups and myriad privacy settings so users can limit sharing, but those are generally perceived as hard to manage.
  • The Twitter model is that one user publicly follows another. It’s perhaps the most simple and clean relationship of any of them. Tumblr is similar to Twitter, though its reblog function often extends shared content far beyond people who know or follow each other.
  • Myspace, back in the day, had a friending model that was awkward for many of its users’ relationships, because it essentially required famous people to hire social media interns to “add” fans who had friended them. In that case, following would have probably been more appropriate than friending.

Google+ is a lot more complicated than any of these, but on the plus side (heh), it’s complicated from the get-go, so all users are defining their relationships with each other when they add them, rather than messing with privacy settings after the fact.

I have to say, though, while using the snazzy animated Circle-creation tool may come more naturally to others (early adopters seem to be mad with love for Google+), I think this is likely to be a stumbling block for many people.

Perhaps digital relationships won’t be naturally nuanced and eroded over time like real-world relationships, because digital things just don’t do that. They exist, or they do not.

And it may just be that privacy is incredibly difficult to illustrate and conceptualize. But lots of things seem hard at the start; maybe we as humans will teach ourselves to understand this stuff better over time.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work