A Perfect Circle: “Friends”

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I was impressed by Facebook’s updated privacy announcements today. Finally, after years of menus – and menus filled with menus – and menus filled with menus filled with drop-downs — we’re getting simple, direct privacy options right on the page. I’m sure some people will still bitch and moan because well, it’s Facebook. But at least on the surface, these changes look good.

The changes also tie into something I’ve been thinking about for a long time — it’s a subject that has become red-hot again thanks to Google+ and its Circles concept: simple social sharing. With today’s changes, Facebook has whittled six sharing options down to three. And really, there are only now two that actually matter: “Public” and “Friends”.

When you used to share things on Facebook, you had the option to share with “Everyone”, “Friends of Friends and Networks”, “Friends and Networks”, “Friends of Friends”, “Friends”, or a customized group. Read that list over again. It’s ridiculous. And it’s actually still in place right now (the new changes haven’t rolled out just yet).

Again, now those options have been reduced to “Public” or “Friends”. A million times better. And more or less exactly what I’ve been asking for for the past couple of years.

Yes, on the surface the sharing controls are less granular. But “Custom” remains for the power users. In their post on the matter, Facebook also alludes to expanding the sharing options and possibly adding other Groups or Lists you create over time. For most users, hopefully they won’t do this. Again, “Public” and “Friends” are all that matter.

Now that we’re exiting the Google+ post-launch hype cycle and we’re starting to see if the service will actually be useful, a realization about the Circles feature seems to be setting in: Circles, like all lists, are a pain in the ass to maintain. Sure, Google perfected a way to get users to create these lists. But managing those people once they’re in there is just not something people are going to do.

“But but but it will be different with Google+!” No it won’t.

And I’ll go a step further. I would bet that because Google+ forces users to put people in at least one Circle, eventually, most users will just add everyone they want to follow into exactly that: one Circle. A smaller subset will create two Circles: “friends” and “family”. Even smaller subsets will create Circles for their co-workers. And that’s it. That’s the harsh reality of list creation online.

That’s too bad because lists, when you take the time to create them and maintain them, are very useful. That’s why everyone — Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc — has tried to tackle this problem. But I think all plans have been too grandiose. Most lists are ephemeral. That’s why they actually do work well on mobile with services like group messaging. And I would bet that we’ll see a lot of startups spring up around the idea of group creation on the fly based on location.

But on the higher level for these massive social networks, you need to keep it simple for the vast majority of users. One list: “Friends”.

That’s what Facebook has just essentially done. While they give you two sharing options (again, not including “Custom”), “Public” is actually not a list at all. It’s everyone out there in the world, potentially. The only actual list is “Friends” and it’s a list that has always been the fundamental building block of Facebook. You don’t have to go out of your way to make that list, it’s how Facebook works. If you accept or extend a connection, those people are your “Friends”.

Google+ has gotten everyone all excited again about granular controls. But there’s a reason the idea keeps failing, and I don’t believe it’s simply a design challenge.

This is the point where some people will get upset and say that I’ve lost touch with reality in the San Francisco hipster bubble. “How dare you tell me I shouldn’t share personal moments with my family!” I’m not saying that. That’s why all of these services have — and will continue to have — custom sharing options. I’m simply saying that the way I see this playing out — the way lists scale — is by giving the majority of users one list. And by having everything else be public.

Facebook’s new system isn’t perfect. I’d still love to see them more directly implement the concept of a “follower”. That is, someone who is not your “friend” but wants to follow along with the public things you post. This sort of exists when you ignore friend requests (or on fan pages), but it’s still not ideal. It needs to be far more explicit on both ends. Eventually, this will have to be addressed one way or another — “Public” sharing doesn’t make a ton of sense without it.

While just about everything I share on Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ is public, I definitely see the need for more selective sharing. I just think we have to be realistic about how it can and will be done. For most people, that will be with one list. “Friends”.