Why Google plus will fail

Before I began my first degree in Psychology, I read a book about how friendships work. It goes like this:

“The development of friendship occurs through the skills of partners in revealing or disclosing their attitudes first and later their personalities, inner characters and true selves. This must be done in a reciprocal manner, turn-by-turn, in a way that keeps pace with revelations and disclosures made by the partner” (Duck S. 1983 pg67)

When the first big social network (Facebook) began it was based on the idea of a college yearbook (Name, Photo, Personal information). That’s fine for a yearbook, because everybody who reads it will likely be part of the same social network. In the real world even this “basic” information can vary radically according to who we interact with.

For example, I have no single photo suitable for everyone I know. Work colleagues expect a professional photo (at a desk with Second Life running); personal friends want something more about me (Capsule hotel, Tokyo, 2001); Second Life friends expect, well, an avatar…

Then there’s my name. Surely that’s consistent? Well, again, the same three groups probably expect, respectively, Dr Rudman, Paul, PD Alchemi. Think about it. What does your boss call you? Your mother? Your partner at 1am?

Revealing one’s full name and work identity could be way too much of a leap for a new social acquaintance. A photo that somehow reveals religious or political views could be a shock for work colleagues who may have assumed something completely different. It’s not that these things are “secret”, just that they need to be shared appropriately.

We are all at some stage in the friendship forming process with each of our “friends”. For some it will be a temporary stage as we move forward. For others it will be a stage from which we prefer not to move further forward. But whatever the stage, we need to be careful not to jump too far ahead, not to reveal something which that particular friendship is not yet ready for.

Google plus – Google’s foray into the world of social networking – allows people to be allocated to “circles”, i.e. groups for filtering information. It’s a significant step forward, but alas, I suspect it will not be enough. Not all friends are equal. Some can be told about the club last night, some can’t; some can know about holiday exploits, others cannot. There needs to be some form of categorisation system that matches up individuals and information, so people can slowly move from strangers to “inner circle” – or not, as desired.

Google plus’s twitter-esque ability of one-sided friendships, also known as “following” people, or putting strangers in one’s circle, is another good move, but without a new system for controlling who sees what it’s just Twitter@Google.

One complaint about Google plus is that it won’t let people create an account for their avatar. An avatar is a mechanism for social relationships, whether Google like it or not. We recently saw the beginnings of a social network for avatars in Second Life. It’s pretty rudimentary at present, but it will probably survive, maybe even thrive, because it partly fills this gap.

The fundamental problem is one of revealing personal information appropriate to the depth of each social relationship. *Everything* needs to be tailored to the people who will receive it. Everything you post, your name, your photo, the other people in your network – who they are, what they represent and what they post – all say a lot more than most people realise. All can damage the delicate sequence and balance of a social relationship.

Circles were a great idea, but they just don’t go far enough. There needs a finer grained definition of who should know what. Like a leaking bucket, it’s not the bucket that needs fixing, it’s the leak.

And that’s why Google plus fails to improve on Facebook and Twitter, and ultimately will fail to become the new dominant social network.

Comments please…

Paul Rudman, BDRA

Duck, Steve. 1983. Friends, for life: the psychology of close relationships. Harvester Press, Brighton, Sussex

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