The Two Sides of Circles

I’m puzzled by the circles in plus. (Funny how about ten days ago, nobody would have known what I was talking about.)

Circles are a good tool for reading. They allow you to divide your stream into a number of channels so you can more easily focus your attention.

But circles are bad for sharing. For one thing, if you want to keep something private to a certain group of people, circles provide a deceptive, if not dangerous illusion of that. We all know it’s not the case, it can’t be guaranteed, but less technical people might still be tricked into that old fallacy that anything could remain private on the internet.

And there are other concerns. For example, someone suggested that bilingual plussers such as me should put contacts into circles according to their language. One circle for English, one for German, and the like. When you share something, you share it to the language circle in which the posting is written — this way, people are not bothered with content they do not understand. The problem is: Who am I to make that call? How should I know what languages people speak, and what languages they want to be bothered with? Most Germans are fine with an occasional post in English. And I have even met Americans who will not flee in panic when facing a post in a language they do not understand.

It would be much better to let the reader decide. The language in which a post is written can be detected automatically rather easily. Users could then be given an option to filter what languages they want to see. Or even better, posts could be auto-translated for users who want that. They should be clearly marked as auto-translated, of course, and maybe it should only be done after an explicit push of a button. You’ve got the technology, Google — please plug it in!

But the problem, exemplified here with languages, extends everywhere. I see people on plus who explain that they keep technical, geeky stuff to a circle of geeks. Photography stuff to a circle of photographers. Movie stuff to a circle of movie lovers. All of these posts and conversations are thereby removed from the public. This precludes any chance of people listening in on these conversations, perhaps joining, extending their reach. It takes away from one of the most important aspects of the internet — a redefinition of what the public sphere is.

I would encourage people to share to public. I would encourage Google to give us excellent search and filter tools for the reading side.

I’m sure you’ve got what it takes, Google.

Optimized for Coziness: Initial thoughts on Google+

Everybody’s excited about Google+ and I, too, could not wait until the somewhat arcane invitation process finally let me in, after about 24 hours of trying, waiting, and trying.

I’m always fascinated how seemingly minor adjustments of parameters bring about entirely new forms of communication. Why don’t you just make a phone call?, we asked, when the text message was invented. But of course, a text was something very different from a phone call – more indirect, and strangely more constrained, yet also more concentrated than verbal communication. Why don’t you just send an e-mail? But of course, a text is quite different from an e-mail, because it reaches the recipient instantaneously, usually alerting them with an audible signal to its arrival.

When Blogs, Twitter, and Facebook came up, the power of one-to-many was given to individuals. Everybody could suddenly speak in such a way that the entire world might hear it. Of these mechanisms, Twitter seems the most fascinating to me, with its asymmetric attention structure (you don’t need to follow me if I follow you), and, most of all, its 140 character limit. This is so outright brilliant it could only have been invented by accident.

In this world, where individuals can suddenly talk to the whole planet, the length limit allows for a manageable economy of attention. You can’t talk my ear off, unless I specifically allow you by clicking the link you put in your tweet. But even more important is that the 140 character limit forces people to think a lot about what exactly they are going to say. The result being that Twitter is an oasis of wit, of fun, of brilliance at times, and altogether an intelligent medium.

Facebook handles these two critical areas exactly the other way round, and thus gets them wrong. Listening to somebody is tied to the in this case awkward concept of »friendship«, which means it is symmetrical: You have to friend me if I want to friend you. This causes people to hang around with, and listen to those they know, rather than extend their reach. Facebook is the people you went to school with – Twitter is the people you wished you went to school with, as somebody put it brilliantly on, of course, Twitter. And besides, there is no length limit on Facebook posts (well, there is one, but a much larger one than on Twitter). There is thus a lot less effort involved in creating a Facebook post. People need to think less, and it shows. Facebook, on the average, feels dull and boring.

In the light of this, the interesting question to me seems what communication structure Google+ establishes. What mode of communication does it suggest, what does it encourage?

Well, firstly, it gets the asymmetry of attention right. I can put you in a circle, but you don’t need to do anything in reverse. You will notice that you captured my attention, which is an important part of extending one’s communication reach, but other than that, you can ignore me for now, or forever. G+ does attempt to make this more fine-grained, however, allowing me to put people into different circles, for friends, for family, or strangers from out there in the net. I can then choose which of these circles I want to share with, unless I choose to make my posts public for everybody.

I have little use for these circles, I think. For me, the whole point of communicating in the network is to publish, to speak to, potentially, everybody, and let listeners decide whether they find interesting what I have to say. Circles and selective sharing might make G+ more family-friendly and group-cozy, but they add nothing to the fascinating, new, emerging communication patterns that are currently redefining the very concept of what the public sphere is.

The other important characteristic of G+ is that there’s no length limit. It therefore does not enforce the radical discipline of Twitter, and contributions are therefore bound to be more verbose, less concentrated, less to the point, and therefore less witty, less brilliant on G+.

Comparing my Twitter timeline to my G+ stream, Twitter is an amazingly concentrated source of highly relevant information, very efficiently organized, augmented with precise pointers to places outside of it. G+, by comparison, is lots of white space and outright clumsiness: »xyz originally shared this post«. It does not help that re-sharing an article doubles it in the streams of all those who already saw the first version, something that Twitter’s built-in retweet feature got right a long time ago. Sharing a photo drops it right into the stream itself, pushing everything else away, and sharing a simple link produces a hard-to-understand mess of no less than three different paragraphs. A search function for streams is something we can only hope for (rather optimistically perhaps, given that this thing was created by Google). Chronological ordering of the stream? Let’s hope for that too.

Some of these quirks might be ironed out soon, but it does not take away from my general impression that G+, for all of its admirable slickness in the UI, does not come along as an efficient engine for exchanging information on a global scale.

Ultimately, the value of a medium depends on the quality of the information that it produces, or to put it more colorful: the information that chooses to live in it. Surprises will happen. It is doubtful that Gutenberg, when he invented the printing press, envisioned the Critique of Pure Reason being enabled by it. When Twitter’s creators first played with their tiny little text messages, they surely did not expect it would be such an excellent tool for the emerging communications structure of the 21st century. When something as stupid as Facebook was created, who would have thought that almost a billion people would be just fine with it.

I will, therefore, remain curious about G+, excited even, and surely be hanging around there. For the time being, however, I really wish there would be nicely built bridges to and from Twitter for it.