Mark Zuckerberg has called grouping friends "the biggest problem in social networking." No wonder. With 800 million users, Facebook boasts one of the messiest social graphs out there—users average 130 friends, which range from ex-girlfriends to distant cousins to mortal enemies, making sharing on the network a giant headache and a huge liability for some. (You wouldn't want to share the same status updates or check-ins with your roommate as you would your boss.)
Zuck also called Google+ a "little version of Facebook." It was meant as a jab. But the concept of small might turn out to be an advantage when it comes to organizing friends. A slew of smaller social networks are popping up to better capture the nuances of our offline relationships, from Foursquare (for location sharing) and LinkedIn (for professional contacts) to Instagram and Path (for photo sharing). It's why Skype spent $85 million to acquire GroupMe; why Facebook has spent much of last year trying to perfect its lists and groups functionality; and why Google launched Google+ Circles, a feature designed to better organize acquaintances.
"I think about this concept of the "stream"—it's now a very polluted stream—everyone is just dumping in it," says Bradley Horowitz, Google product VP, who oversees Google+. "If you're over-friended on these service, you've got a non-stop barrage [of content], like a ping-pong ball bouncing around. I don't want to see a bunch of irrelevant dribble from people I don't care about. We're going to make [sharing] much more meaningful, and bring back the concept of relevance just like we did for search. Click on [a Circle like] 'Family,' and suddenly you're in an intimate space, with people you know talking about things you care about."
That's Google's approach: letting users classify their relationships via Circles to create a more intimate social graph. Horowitz says it will inspire more "high quality sharing." Google is now seeing two types of users: the "pilers" and the "filers." The latter users love Circles, combing through their contacts to curate the perfect social graph; the other category of users simply creates two Circles: one for close friends, and one for everyone else. "Either you have 30 Circles and they're very finely tuned and paid attention to, or you have less than a handful and you clump people together," Horowitz says.
Some think Circles is the wrong approach. Dave Morin, founder and CEO of Path, recently told me he didn't think Circles were a sustainable solution. Sure, you might create the perfect Circle one week—but will that same group of friends be so tight-knit a month from now? A year? In other words, our relationships are ever-evolving, and it's difficult to accurately and sustainably capture such nuances of our social relationships online. His solution at Path, which is nearing a million users, is much simpler: to provide what he calls a "hard stop" of 150 possible friends.
"Our ultimate goal is to make it so when you open up Path it's a very low-noise, high-intimacy experience," Morin said recently at Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored conference. "As time has gone on throughout various different social communities on the Internet, whether it was AOL or Facebook or MySpace or Twitter, virtually any social experience that's been created has started out really intimate. You probably remember the early days of Twitter, when it was just us. Now it's turned into quite the media platform. It's not that same intimate experience. At Path, we really desire to create an intimate experience where you feel like you won't be judged, where you feel like you can share anything, something akin to your kitchen table at home, a place where you feel like you can share the everyday moments of your life with the people that you love."
Horowitz says it's still too early to judge Circles, and that many more features are on the way. "There are many many signals that could inform the creation, curation, and decay of Circles," he says. "The concept of Circles as realized today is a very foundational, literal implementation. We have grand plans for extending that concept, to create ad hoc Circles, adjusted Circles, Circles that have this element of decay in them, and many many more flavors and variations that you will see unfold over the coming quarter."
One thing is for certain: Both Horowitz and Morin agree sharing online and organizing our relationships are huge issues that have yet to be solved. Jared Hecht agrees. "The problem is that we have these big graphs, these big broadcast networks, which have made communication and self-expression relatively sterile," Hecht says. "I can’t go on Twitter and say what I’m really thinking because 1000 people who are following me, might judge me. If I go on Facebook and post a picture of the party I went to last night, my nieces and nephews are going to see that and say, What the hell is uncle Jared doing? My mother is going to see that."
Hecht is the founder of GroupMe, a mobile service that enables group text and voice chats across any platform and device (it even works on "dumb" phones). Organizing a group is a cinch: just add a few contacts together from your address book, and voilà, you’ve created a group. "The network we extract contacts from is a preexisting network—the people who are in your contact list on your phone," Hecht says—an incredibly intimate social graph. On Facebook, you’d have to comb through hundreds of friends to hash out the right group to start; the same goes for contacts on Google+.
But GroupMe’s real secret sauce is that it provides a big incentive to group your friends. On Facebook, the experience is voluntary; on Google, it’s essentially forced. On GroupMe? It’s built to be fun and convenient.
"Users are creating groups with purpose and intent. Some of them are just trying to have drinks, or play mini-golf, or see a concert or movie," Hecht says. "There’s a serious element of social currency here—I wouldn’t invite 20 random people that didn’t know each other to a group—that wouldn’t make sense. What we believe is that GroupMe enables us to interact and communicate the way we actually do in real life."
Whatever the solution—whether it's a slick Circles-like grouping service, capping off one's social network, or taking advantage of phone contacts—social sharing has an intimacy problem. And there's a question of whether technology can even solve this issue. After all, can we rely on an algorithm to understand who our true friends are? Will our real-life social graph ever match our online social network?
All three are bullish on solving this problem.
Says Horowitz, "I think we can do that and more."
[Image: Flickr user ALL CHROME]