Why Google+ works
I am thrilled to see Andy Herzfeld’s social circles concept implemented so beautifully in Google+. My semi-educated guess is that empowering users to define access to themselves according to their own purposes and needs—in context—will build engagement and strong loyalty. Why? Because it comes naturally.
Too many social media-based sites, including many social networks, provide only lip service to how users think about groups, let alone user privacy empowerment. A user is seen as one of their members, and the business creates a mental model in which the user is the center of a series of widening circles. “Empowerment” of user content privacy is typically limited to enabling permissions control within those circles.
Users don’t see themselves that way. People think of sharing information in terms of a constantly changing algorithm of need, purpose, and ability. We trust some friends more closely than others; we have acquaintances who know a great deal about us whom we barely know. It’s my belief that these clashing mental models are one of the primary reasons social media and social networks fail to engage.
Some examples of groups which don’t fit the standard business mold:
- Trusted acquaintances. To get a job, we may need to share detailed background information with people we barely know but must trust out of necessity: human resources, drug testing representatives, recruiters. We also share a great deal with doctors, literally putting our lives and health in their hands, without knowing them very well.
- Interest-based friends. We have friends with whom we choose to share everything, but we frequently have friends with whom we limit sharing to specific interests. Colleagues and fellow hobbyists are examples.
- Family. These people know a great deal about us simply because of frequent close contact, which typically leads to close bonding and sharing. But as with interest-based friends, we may prefer to share some things, not all.
- Unknown people. In a world in which job-hunting is becoming a lifestyle, people are sharing for an audience they don’t know yet. Potential employers, recruiters, customers, and business partners are often deliberately targeted by job-hunters.
- Untrustworthy people. These may be ex-spouses, stalkers, etc. Some social networks allows you to block specific users, but many do not, and most sites which employ social media to enhance their business do not.
Natural grouping also allows sites to make the most of niche parts of their audience. Too many times I’ve seen sites imagine the majority of their users to be their primary audience, neglecting more highly focused and engaged groups. These long tail segments of the audience were typically grouped more narrowly, and interacted between themselves much more highly than the generic larger groups, but were neglected because of their size. My recommendation in this situation? Don’t neglect smaller active segments, learn from them. Enabling natural grouping allows the larger, generic audience to begin to sort itself into smaller, more actively engaged segments. In other words, don’t cut off your long tail to spite your site.
A few sites have allowed natural grouping, with great success. Back in 2003, before Facebook even existed, LiveJournal introduced easy-to-create custom friend groups to control content privacy. For example, my custom groups include writer friends, fellow techies, female friends, specific users, and more. LiveJournal also allows users to filter their friend content according to these groups. It’s more than a blog, it’s a social writing platform. This, along with a highly usable interface and solid branding, creates an experience that still commands a great deal of loyalty from a strong user base. It’s not Facebook, but it was never meant to be.
Google+ is likewise not Facebook. Nona Aronowitz at GOOD observes,
I see Google+ as serving a completely different function. Facebook and Twitter can mobilize, organize, and disseminate information. It can and will continue to help journalists, politicians, and activists do their work. But sometimes you just want to hang with your friends, and when that can’t happen in real life, something like Google+ could be the next best thing.
Users are constantly tweaking their output—what they say, what they share online, what they do—to optimize their personal experience of the world. Designing for this provides a more natural way of interacting with others online. Online social networking shouldn’t have to be the end of privacy, or limited to artificially preset circles; it can be an extension of our normal behavior. Herzfeld and Google+ get that.
P.S. Since late 2008 I’ve been advocating natural grouping, empowering users to control access to themselves by their own purposes and needs. Some of the above was shared in a 2009 presentation, Designing for purpose.
Aronowitz, N.W., 28 June 2011. Could Google’s new social network actually improve our social lives?, GOOD.
Ong, J., 28 June 2011. Google gave original Mac designer free rein on new Google+ UI, AppleInsider.