In my last column I was sorta critical of Google Plus. I described it as a tool to harvest personal information for resale on the global ad market.
I know I hurt Google’s feelings with my words, but I still believe that’s true. That’s the real reason Google introduced Plus.
But even knowing that, over the last couple of weeks I’ve taken quite a shine to Google Plus.
It’s the first social network I feel comfortable using.
And by that I mean it’s the first social network where I truly feel in control of what I post.
I’m a very private person. I don’t necessarily want everyone to know about the details of my daily life, or even my general activities.
I’ve always kept a very, very small circle of real-world friends.
So when I post information online that’s of a personal nature, I want to know exactly who’s going to see it and what they’re capable of doing with it.
I don’t feel like I can trust Facebook that way.
Facebook’s privacy settings are a dog’s breakfast. They’re still difficult to understand, and even more difficult to manage.
So I generally avoid Facebook, because I don’t trust that I have any real control over what I post there.
What’s more, it’s my belief that Facebook is less a social network than it is a personal marketing platform.
It’s the place you polish and shine the You that you really want to be, then play that part when you let it all hang out.
So Twitter has become my primary social network, but only because it’s cut-and-dried. Anyone can see whatever I post to Twitter, so I only post truly public information online there.
Google’s positioned Plus very nicely in between Facebook and Twitter.
You can post publicly if you like, and anyone is free to follow your public posts without your explicit consent, just like on Twitter. (You can, of course, block anyone you like.)
But then there’s the stuff you want to share on a more limited basis, or in a totally private environment.
Twitter provides very limited tools for this. And Facebook’s offerings are, as I mentioned, clumsy at best.
Privacy and control, however, are at the core of Plus, in a tool called Circles.
Circles gives you fine-grained control over who can read and share your posts, and it’s extremely easy to set up and use.
In the real world we constantly adjust our behaviour and communication methods based on who we’re discoursing with.
We change our mannerisms, use different words and phrases, and we even dress differently, depending on the occasion and situation.
Oddly, however, no social networks to date has effectively enabled us to manage ourselves this way online.
A telltale sign of this fact is the aversion youth have to friending their parents on Facebook.
They don’t want to expose their peer behaviour and communications to their parents’ sensitive eyes.
Circles is the antidote to this.
Circles is really the first online environment to which we can accurately transfer the mental model that fuels our interpersonal filtering engine.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which tend to represent social relationships artificially as concentric circles in separate silos, Circles recognizes that relationships are really more like overlapping rings that dynamically co-exist in multiple dimensions.
Sometimes you just want to communicate something to your siblings.
But you may not always want to post information to such a discrete group of people.
Maybe another time you have important news to share with your siblings, your parents, a certain group of friends, and a small group of co-workers.
Either situation would work in Plus.
Circles lets you mix and match the groups you share information with, depending on the context and the content.
In other words, you can adapt the Plus environment to your social networking needs.
A lot of people are adopting Plus alone, and ditching their blog, multiple Twitter accounts, and Facebook, so fine is the control that Circles gives you.
To support the way you already think of your contacts, you use your own words to describe the circles you create in Plus.
You start with a few default circles like “Friends”, “Family”, and “Acquaintances”.
Then you create more circles and name them as you please.
So you might create a circle named, “Clients”. Or one called “Water Cooler Gang”.
Kids will probably want to create a circle called “Parents”, stuff mom and dad in there, then set it safely aside to collect dust.
Canadian rocker Matthew Good has a Circle named “Fans” that he enthusiastically interacts with, usually by hosting group video Hangouts.
And how do you manage all of this?
Basically, you drag and drop pictures of your contacts into pictures of circles.
Of course, contacts can exist in more than one circle just as they do in real life.
Then each time you publish a post to your Stream in Plus, you must take a deliberate action to define which Circles should be able to view it.
That act of choosing who should view what you’re saying is an intrinsic part of how you use Plus. You have to think about it.
And because your intended audience must be clearly and deliberately identified, it’s much easier to adjust the way you communicate and behave appropriately.
Just like in real life.
I’m still finding it a tough pill to swallow that Google is, by default, a contact in all of my circles, harvesting every word and picture I post.
But as a communications tool, Circles is too effective and easy to use to ignore.
I might just be willing to sell my informational soul for it.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, August 5, 2011.