In late 2004, I was starting my third year at the University of Washington when several classmates and friends started using Facebook. Initially, I thought it was the dumbest thing on the planet — especially since some of the campus’ hottest Casanovas were using or, rather, abusing the relationship status option (and their girlfriends were loving the attention). When I realized it had devolved into nothing more than a competition for who had the most friends, I caved in to the game mechanics. It was also better than LiveJournal for exchanging private messages without the clunkiness of campus email, and the lack of privacy features made for good gossip.
Now that it’s 2011 and a similar social network in similar private beta has emerged from Google, I am having a serious case of déjà vu.
I was initially excited that Google+ would offer what Facebook does not, now that its privacy features are more slightly constricted and there’s more transparency with somewhat-public profiles. The problem is that the creation of circles allows any information that can be shared — such as news — to be controlled by a tight clique. This isn’t really different than how it works in the “real world,” but at least with Facebook and Twitter, I have a glimpse into the conversation as a story develops. I can’t prove that I’m missing anything specific, but I can tell you that other tech bloggers are still being more transparent on Twitter and Facebook than they are on Google+ — leaving me to wonder what conversations are behind closed doors, allowed only for certain eyes (in certain circles) to read.
And that’s why all these features we want, such as circles that we can share as a list, don’t matter. What good is it to share my circle of professional colleagues, who have mostly all placed me in circles to exchange information, to a stranger who will not receive the same permissions? Circles are not lists — they are cliques defined by the user to keep people out. And the only way you’ll receive any data shared by people in your circle is if they share the same amount of permission with you — and don’t keep you out.
Facebook has its problems, but some of those issues aren’t an argument against abandoning the ship for Google. Both Google+ and Facebook mine and control user information to sell. Perhaps Google may have more issues with security and privacy, since the company knows your email and search habits, too. We may think we have more control over our own privacy in respect to what we share, but Google knows more about us than Facebook does. Google undoubtedly uses that to guide our actions (and perhaps make a little money from it on the side). That’s more than a little scary.
I contend that businesses and brands need to be transparent if they want to engage in social marketing campaigns. With Facebook and Twitter, this is relatively simple — and the value of transparency applies just as well to you and me (and it should). Like our parents said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t put it on the Internet.” (Well, okay — they said something like that.) The clique-based philosophy of sharing on Google+ will only limit my ability to consume information, and that’s not fine with me — not on a social level, and certainly not on a professional level (where knowing what’s new in tech is crucial).
Can Google+ get better? At most, it can go in a different direction. Google+ sucks as a way to find and share news today, and I hope it doesn’t take away from Facebook and Twitter as the primary tools we use to discuss and discover new ideas. Perhaps this will change as the network grows and more people are posting and sharing more items (outside of these cliques). As a social network, it also has the potential to suck — but only because it’s reminiscent of high school and the complicated hierarchy of who is “in” and who is “out.”
Google+ hasn’t yet identified a problem I was having with any other social network, but it seems to be creating new problems. On Facebook and Twitter, I don’t have to be a part of any particular group to gain access to the openly shared intelligence.
I think I’ll let the other tech pundits and “Internet celebrities” have their cliques. As for me, I’ll eat crow for what I said about Facebook in 2004. It’s really not that bad.