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.