Google+, broadcasting and privacy

My friend Lehrblogger wrote a great post on Google’s ‘circles’ feature, and it got me thinking a little bit about this issue of “categorizing our friends.” Lehrblogger’s main conclusion is simple:

“Regardless of the interfaces and features of Lists on Facebook or Circles on Google, I don’t think people actually want to sort their contacts.”

I think, on a whole, this is correct - and certainly, that conclusion ties into several long-term trends towards using algorithms and search to sort through data for ourselves. But as Lehrblogger and others touch upon, I think this issue is intricately tied to a more complex issue: that of transferring offline relationships to an online space. I’m not entirely sure that this is a completely “solvable” problem, but it seems like everyone is treating it as if it is. I think there are probably a lot of different approaches to this problem, but if we look at services like Google's, Facebook and Twitter, there’s really one assumption these services are making about what constitutes an “online relationship.”

These services are, in the majority, built on the principle of broadcasting. I say something, many people hear it and listen to it. The thing about broadcasting is that it’s not a very natural human activity. It’s not very often in our lives when we actually get to stand in front of a group of people and say our piece. The only yearly occasion I can think of is Thanksgiving, when I get to reflect on the past year in front of the 9 - 13 people I care about the most. The other 364 days of the year, dinner tables of that size tend to degenerate into a plethora of side-conversations. Otherwise, we allow people to broadcast during pivotal moments in their lives - weddings, graduations, etc. As such, the ability to “broadcast” is viewed as an opportunity - something you want to think about, and take seriously.

With online spaces now, broadcasting has become an everyday tool, for better or worse. While that has led to social delight in the dynamics of Twitter, it becomes problematic when we start to think about broadcasting to specific groups of people. On Twitter, anyone may see my tweets, but that’s OK, because my tweets are meant for anybody to read. I’m careful not to drop an F-bomb, because I’m aware my parents might see my tweet. I’m okay with this - knowing that I’m not going to get deeply personal tweets in my twitter stream is not what I expect, and not what I use Twitter for. However, when we begin broadcasting from specific groups of people, things get a little bit more complicated. Lehrblogger quotes Yishan Wong off of Quora:

Besides such features being unwieldy to operate, one’s “friend circles” tend to be fluid around the edges and highly context-dependent, and real humans rely often on the judgment of the listener to realize when something that is said publicly is any of their business, or if they should exercise discretion in knowing whether to get involved or just “butt out.”

Here’s Lehrblogger’s comment on this:

It’s worth noting how simple my social interactions feel offline – I can see all of the people within ear shot, so I know who can hear me and who might overhear, and this allows me to adjust the things I say accordingly. Furthermore, creating these contexts is straightforward – if I want to talk about something with a specific group of people, I’ll organize a time when we can all talk face-to-face. Offline I only need to keep track of my relationships with individuals, and I can adjust my group behavior based on the individuals present.

I think this dances around a very simple insight: Not every relationship is the same. The way I talk about the same issue to a parent, or a sibling, or a girl friend, or a guy friend, differs slightly. And the level of detail with which we regulate the social conventions of our relationships is incredibly nuanced and detailed, but it’s not necessarily something we have conscious access to. While there may be similarities in some domains (I may talk to two people with the same reckless abandon when talking about the internet), I may approach them differently around other topics (say, politics), making these relationships ultimately different, despite occasional overlap. That to me is the real trouble with the sort-your-friends ideal: it seems to insist that there are relationship “types.” When I group you into a circle, it implies I want to interact with a set of people in the same manner.

That may be true on the whole - the way I interact with my Sharks fandom friends is different than the way I interact with my techie friends or my skiing friends. But the kicker on that is, I don’t mind if people from various groups see my interactions with the other friends - if you have ever seen my Twitter account, you have probably seen a range of indecipherable, slightly manic tweets that you don’t understand. I’m really okay with that. So, let’s take one of my most recent retweets of @chloedayhorse:

@ninakix @micahsch DON'T MOVE, I'LL CALL SKI PATROL

Unless you have an interest in obscure Canadian snowboarder-filmmakers, this tweet probably makes no sense to you. And that’s okay, it’s not meant to. You’ll see it, assume it’s not for you, and scroll past it. No harm, no foul. But if I had wanted to direct this tweet, I would have had to have a group dedicated to my skiing friends (not unlikely), but then sorted through to find the people who would likely get the joke (who do I think has seen this video?), and then add @micahsch temporarily to the group. That’s a lot of work, all for other peoples’ benefit, and no concrete benefit to myself. You can just scroll past my tweet, thank you very much. Even more, if I use “social steganography,” even personal information can be shared in a public space. If I’m careful in how I present things, I rely on an intuitive sense of my relationships to hide my meaning in a public space. Here’s danah boyd talking about social steganography:

She’s hiding information in plain sight, creating a message that can be read in one way by those who aren’t in the know and read differently by those who are. She’s communicating to different audiences simultaneously, relying on specific cultural awareness to provide the right interpretive lens.

Which gets to a final issue with our changing usage of broadcasting: witnesses matter. What we say and to whom is important, but also who witnesses us saying this to whom. Think about that awkward moment where you’re trying to determine if a friend was invited to a party, while not letting on that there was a party in case they weren’t invited. If information is conveyed in confidence to groups which change too quickly to keep track, or we’re not aware of who is in them, that ability to “witness” the others in the group becomes near impossible (certainly not easy).

This would all spell a certain death for the migration of offline relationships to the online space if it were not for a simple fact: there are only a small group of people to whom I’d say something radically different from the rest of my friends, or at least the rest of my friends in that particular “world.” As an aside, we deal with the separation of “worlds” fairly well in the way we approach it, usually by grouping our friends onto separate services - Facebook for my friends, Twitter for techies and Sharks friends, Tumblr for design, etc. Anyways, when I break up with someone, I offer the same explanation to 90% of the world, and the real, in-depth versions go to only my closest friends and family. And specialized tools that allow us to account for the different things we want to say to these people do exist - they’re called email, phone calls, IM, or even Skype (or, god forbid, you could use a face-to-face channel).

This is all a roundabout way of pointing out that perhaps the struggle to find the perfect tool to broadcasting with finesse is a little bit pointless. Broadcasting, after all, is defined by its public nature. Perhaps our biggest problem is expecting that we should all be broadcasting from the same platform, constantly. I can't say what the right solution is here, and whether Google%2B will ultimately be successful or not - for all the postulating, at the end of the day Google%2B's success relies on the dynamics of a network that's hard to pick apart or even guess at without a better understanding of Google's incredibly large and diverse userbase. But understanding what they're trying to help users achieve is a start.