My first post when I started this blog was going to be something about geeks inheriting the Earth through online social networking. I was going to argue their high degree of social awkwardness had given them the ability (mostly through need) to reverse-engineer social interaction in the real world, thus perfectly qualifying them to design and code the places humans socialise online.
I consider myself a large percentage geek (with a spectrum score I’ll be keeping to myself, thanks very much) but the non-geek part of me probably thought better of posting such sweeping – and probably offensive – generalisations.
But now I’m glad I didn’t for another reason, which struck me when Google+ was announced last week: I was wrong.
One apparently killer feature of Google’s Facebook killer is the ability to put all the people you know into different ‘circles’ – old school friends, family, work colleagues, people you met on your round the world trip, etc. – and share different bits of your life with individual circles. Want to share a crude joke? Send it to your laddish friends circle. Want to share a movie of your child’s first steps? Send it to your family circle. Want to link to your new blog post? Send it to your professional contacts. On the face of it, that seems like a brilliant idea, and an elegant way to address the syndrome which affects the majority: posting nothing because you can’t think of anything everyone’s going to like. Or worse: content you only want certain people to see appearing in front of everyone.
The trouble is, unless you’re an uber-geek, you probably only think this way in your subconscious. Every normal person tailors the way they present themselves and communicates information appropriate to the audience they’re speaking to. The intricacies of the way we do this are deep and complex – our body language will be different, our accent will change, we’ll temper our swearing, and so on. We do all these things all the time, completely naturally, and without even thinking about it – it’s one of the instinctive skills that make us human.
Even with my geek goggles on, I wonder if I’d be able to define a reasonable number of circles and place everyone I know inside one (or more, assuming that’s possible). I also wonder if I’d lose something by constraining everything I say to those circles. What’s to say someone I knew from school wouldn’t be interested in this blog post, for example? If they were excluded from the circle I shared it with with, how will the tool help that relationship develop beyond 25 year-old shared ground?
Something else we’re subconsciously doing all the time is filtering. Your eyes give you a 180º angle of view, yet you’re managing to focus on this single word, and our ears hear so much more than we ever let reach the piece of our brain which has to do something about trying to understand it. If it’s presented in the right way, we’re just as capable of scanning huge amounts of information and homing in on the most interesting or important pieces.
I suppose what I’m saying is that trying to replicate or anticipate the subtleties of human communication in computer code is a pointless exercise. For a start it’s going to be almost impossible and, assuming it were achievable, is going to to force things from our subconscious into our conscious – at which point it becomes a barrier. What we should be doing is inventing stuff which fits with and helps the way people already think, intuitively.
Seems I not alone on this. Paul Adams – one of the Google+ architects, now with Facebook – highlights some of this conscious vs. subconscious stuff in his latest post.
Only time will tell if Google+ has appeal beyond the geeks, but my prediction is it’ll go the way of the Wave – for the reasons above, and some of the things I touched on in an earlier post. Ultimately, I think most of us will do what we’ve always done in the real world – find the places which feel right to us as individuals and tailor the way we behave in those environments accordingly; not flock to one behemoth which tries to be everything to all of us, and requires us to turn our brains inside out.