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More on What's Wrong with Facebook and What's Right with Google+

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Ever since the release of Google+, I’ve been thinking through what Google had to go through to match and improve on Facebook. People think that geekery is all about code but there is serious intellectual work that precedes the code that is just as hard. Google had to figure out what they did wrong with Buzz (as I explained) but also figure out what is actually wrong with Facebook, if there is such a thing. Whatever it was that they figured out, they put their finger on something because Google plus already has 20 million users. Not bad for a limited, 3-week rollout.

Ok, so here’s what I’m thinking. Imagine if we had a culture and society that worked the following way. You are walking along the street. A person walks up to you and says: “hey, will you be my friend?” You are now in an odd position. If you say no, you hurt the person’s feelings. If you say yes, you have a new friend you don’t really know, and you thereby take the risk that this person is going to know too much about you or otherwise lurk and bother you. If you object, the new friend can point out that you once agreed to the deal.

Just imagine if this sort of thing went on constantly throughout the day. Everywhere you went, people came up and asked the same question: “will you be my friend?” We would all be going out of our minds. There is a reason that this doesn’t happen. No one wants a world like that. Friendship is a mutual moving together toward each other, and each friendship is a unique sort of thing. There are subtleties involved.

Facebook works much like this icky world that no one really wants. We don’t hate strangers but neither do we want to be forced to give strangers a yes or no answer as to whether we want to be their friends – friends in that homogeneous, in-or-out Facebook way. It is a particular problem for people who have lots of associations (family, coworkers, etc.) that are not necessarily ones we actively choose every day but we would all be loath to end on grounds that doing so leads to hurt feelings.

This accounts for the universal nightmare of all people under a certain age: suddenly receiving a friend request from Mom or Dad. You can’t win with this deal because Mom and Dad are usually newbies to Facebook and therefore only have a few friends. If they become your friend, they are in a position to suddenly obsess about every image, every comment, every like, every other friend. They will be up all evening hitting the refresh button on your page. This is really terrible.

Facebook has developed its own internal culture and some software tricks for dealing with this problem. But it remains a fundamental problem. And surely every software problem has a coding solution. Google+ figured it out. You have a public profile. That’s your choice. Anyone can follow that public profile. Now you are in a position to add them or not to any circle of your own creation. This makes incredible sense. At first, many people were alarmed to discover that Google permits people to follow you without your permission, but this is why. I mean, in real life, anyone is in a position to “follow” you too, that is be curious about who you are and what you are doing. But it is up to you to take that next step and add them to some social circle of your own creation.

This also solves the Mom and Dad problem too. They will never know if they are in one of your circles or not. You could post to your circles every few minutes all day and night and they would never know this and, crucially, they would never know that they are being excluded from anything. More rationally, you simply create a circle called “Mom and Dad” and post to that one all that you want them to see. “I love my calculus class so much! Thank you Mom and Dad for making this possible!”

In other words, Google+ found the thing about Facebook that distorts human associations and created a platform that more closely impersonates human social relations. To me, this is absolutely brilliant.

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