Having “grown up” online — a bit more than most of my contemporaries, as I had the techno-geek life of BBS’ing and AOHell in the early days of the internet — I’ve always had as much of an “online” presence as off. Today, this means that many of my personal hobbies, whether it be making/drinking beer, watching Purdue sports, arguing about politics, and making offensive jokes are activities coordinated and tailored to specific online forums as well. Homebrewing, Boilermaker football, and arcane anarcho-libertarian musings quickly bore the snot out of my friends and family in the offline world, and I’ve gotten in trouble with my wife more than once for those jokes.
In fact, it was the jokes that both largely made me effectively leave Facebook, and to be excited about the “Circles” feature in G+. Facebook has an inherently flat structure that ensures that if someone is your “Friend”, they can see essentially everything you post. This has two downsides:
1. It causes you to avoid friending certain people that you may not WANT to see every little thing about you.
2. It makes it bothersome to write about something that a small subset of your friends might be interested in, but others won’t care about.
I know that my beer friends don’t care about my political rants. My political friends don’t care about the status of my latest homebrew creations. I might occasionally want to highlight something I’ve written politically to my friends/family, but they certainly don’t want to be inundated with it. And my mother-in-law DOESN’T need to hear most of my jokes. And I’ve actively avoided friending many people in the political realm, many Purdue folks I know *only* through online sites, because I had no way to filter out the topics they wouldn’t be interested in. And I’ve especially never wanted to include coworkers or business contacts on Facebook, of course, because some of the discussions I get into would be completely inappropriate for a professional working relationship.
Circles changes that, and allows one to make a much LARGER social network that is more properly segmented based on common interests. And since people can reside within multiple circles at once, I don’t have to decide whether someone goes in “Friends” or “Beer”; they can be in both if we have that interest in common.
For that reason, I think G+ is a far better platform — for me — than Facebook.
However, Circles and “following” also allows a bit of Twitter-like asymmetric information dissemination that becomes very interesting. In essence, it’s like having your G+ account be both your Facebook social network and a more interactive Twitter account. With Twitter, the people who want to see my public status updates and the people who I choose to see don’t have to be the same. Ezra Klein has been talking about this quite a bit as G+ largely replacing Twitter for him, as he can reach the same sort of people, have more substantive discussions that can be more easily followed, but doesn’t have to necessarily subject his incoming stream to the rants of libertarian crackpots like myself.
Unfortunately, this becomes worlds less useful to me. The reason is simple — I have to tag posts as “Public” for those who are “following” me to see them. Most people who choose to “follow” me that I might not want to add to circles and have them appear in my timeline are in the political realm. I don’t particularly want to make my political posts “Public”, as that means anyone in my “Friends”, “Family”, “Beer”, or “Coworker” circles can automatically see them — creating the very annoyance factor that Circles are meant to avoid. This may be acceptable for Ezra Klein, who is a public figure due to his prominence as a political journalist, but not something that my non-political friends want to be subjected to from me.
For me, then, I’m left with a dilemma. Twitter is designed to be a broadcast medium, and it’s generally understood that you take the good with the bad if you choose to follow someone. Those who want to hear about my beer or politics know to ignore me during Purdue football games, just as I ignore many of them during specific things they tweet about that I don’t particularly care about. The etiquette of the medium is different than it is on Facebook, and people who will be annoyed by seeing more than three Facebook status updates a day from one person find that to be a slow day on Twitter.
I believe that the etiquette of G+ will more closely echo that of Facebook, which is why the different circles allow you at least filter certain people out of certain subjects. Thus, I can’t see myself sending many things out as “Public”. As a result, the very benefit of an asymmetric network is lost. What I’d really like is the ability to filter certain circles out of my ‘standard’ timeline — that way I can put all my asymmetric follows into a circle, and only go and have that circle show up in my timeline on demand. Otherwise, I simply won’t add those people to any circles, and since I essentially avoid “Public” posts most of the time, they won’t be able to see almost anything I write.
Google+ has the built-in structure to fundamentally change the way that we structure social networks. People I’d never have friended on Facebook previously (i.e. work colleagues, acquaintances, people I *only* know online, etc) now have a place and I can segment my message based on the audience likely to see it. That seems like it might be a game-changer, but needs a bit of tweaking before it’ll be 100% there so that people can figure out the new etiquette of the medium.