29 July 2011

Just you & Google

One of the things I’ve noticed in Google+, a side effect of the Circles feature, is that many people have no public life whatsoever on the service; everything they say is to one Circle or another.

In many ways this mirrors the way people lead their day to day lives: You don’t work in hiding, shrouded by paranoia, but your activities are only seen by colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and family. Your public life is incidental and minor; your encounters with strangers have strict protocols that have been ingrained in both of you from childhood.

Basing an online service on this structure has obvious benefits. You reenact online the rules and protocols you apply to your daily life, like an anthropologist’s theatre performance, each rule simplified and exaggerated and enacted by unbending code. It requires no learning. It requires no adaptation. It suits those who are uncomfortable with dealing with people, social situations, and the changing, infinite, idiosyncrasies that come with both.

This also has obvious flaws. Whatever benefits Google Plus gains from breaking away from Twitter’s bad example and not enforcing an heartless cull of the verbal fluff—the cushioning that makes social interaction so much more pleasant and nice— it loses by being staid and predictable; serendipity is lost and unappreciated.

There’s a risk in trying to author software to closely match observed models of human behaviour. By modelling the status quo you make fluid traditions concrete and inflexible.

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