and the laws of physics changed

Google just introduced Google Plus, their take on social networking. Unsurprisingly, Arvind has one of the first great reviews of its most important feature, Circles. Google Circles effectively let you map all the complexities of real-world privacy into your online identity, and that’s simply awesome.

You can think of Circles as the actual circles of friends you have. The things that are easy to do in real life, like sharing a fun anecdote with the friends you generally go out with on Saturday nights, are easy to do in Circles. The things that are hard to do in real life, like planning your best friend’s surprise birthday party with all of his close friends but without him, are no easier in Circles: you have to make a new list of “everyone except Bob.” That’s great, because I don’t think our brains have evolved yet to really feel comfortable with a social model that supports all set operations, e.g. this circle minus this other circle. That’s usually how we get caught lying. (I mean the lies everyone tells as part of their normal social interactions.)

The most important point is that this feature shatters the previously universally accepted idea that privacy must change dramatically given social networking. For a few years, Facebook has defined the Laws of Physics of social networking. On Facebook, it’s not possible to show different people a different face. On Facebook, relationships are, for the most part, symmetrical. And so we all believed that this was the inevitable path forward with social networking. We conflated the fact that users wanted to connect online with the constraints that Facebook created, and we assumed users wanted those constraints. We forgot that software engineers define the Laws of Physics of the worlds they create. We weren’t living in the inherent world of social networking. We were living in Facebook’s definition of social networking.

We now know it doesn’t have to be this way. The Laws of Physics in the online world are mutable. Google just busted open a world of possibility. Users will question, now more than ever, why sharing must work the way it does on Facebook, given that Google has shown it can work differently.

It will make Facebook better. Which will make Google better. And so on. We may be witnessing the beginning of a new era of online privacy, a maturation of sorts. This is an incredibly exciting time.



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6 responses to “and the laws of physics changed”

  1. Sushubh Avatar

    i had really like to see the feature where i can send a message to a circle minus one of the person who is part of that circle. 

  2. Arvind Narayanan Avatar
    Arvind Narayanan

    I wonder if there’s a parallel between your “Laws of Physics” metaphor and Larry Lessig’s “Code is Law” dictum. But I haven’t thought this through; it could be superficial.

  3. Arvind Narayanan Avatar
    Arvind Narayanan

    I agree. This behavior is very natural and very frequent in some groups, such as teens (I won’t presume to comment on whether it’s socially desirable or not). Ben’s surprise party example is another good use-case, as is a marriage proposal. I think people are reasonably good at keeping such secrets in real life, and it might be a good idea for G+ to support that.

  4. Ben Adida Avatar

    For sure! Here’s Lessig’s original argument:

    I’ve long loved the way Lessig was able to crisply capture the importance of code. Over the years, though, I’ve come to think that “Code is Law” is not quite right. “Code is Nature” or “Code is Physics” seems more appropriate. When you look at how typical users behave online, they don’t think about code so much as “The Man” telling them what to do. They think about it more as innate constraints of the world in which they choose to participate. There isn’t that much anger at code, there is more tacit acceptance of it and sometimes workarounds.

    So, Code is Nature? Code is Physics? I don’t have quite as catchy a phrase as Code is Law 🙂

  5. Arvind Narayanan Avatar
    Arvind Narayanan

    Interesting, thanks!

  6. Eric Savage Avatar
    Eric Savage

    “On Facebook, it’s not possible to show different people a different face”


    Where Facebook privacy breaks down the most painfully is probably where you are the intersection between two otherwise separate groups.  Like your friend tagging a compromising picture of you on your wall, where your mother can see it.  It’s unclear to me if g+ addresses this yet…

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