How Google+ And Other "Little Versions Of Facebook" Solve Social Media's "Big" Problem

Google+ guru Bradley Horowitz, Path's Dave Morin, and GroupMe's Jared Hecht talk to Fast Company about "the biggest problem in social networking"—grouping the right friends in the right ways.

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]

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9 Comments

  • Mark Drummond

    It's possible to form meaningful groups automatically by looking for 'clusters' in existing social graphs.  Algorithms for doing this are tricky, meaning that it's pretty well impossible (in general) to find the optimal set of (possibly overlapping) clusters in an existing graph.  That said, there have been two companies that have tried to do this.

    Katango formed Facebook lists for you, automatically.  Katango was purchased by Google late in 2011.  My company, Jildy (www.jildy.com), also forms groups automatically.  A separate discussion in Quora (not created by me or by Jildy) judged Katango's clustering and Jildy's clustering and found Jildy's to be superior (see http://www.quora.com/I-have-be...

    I agree w/ Horowitz's comments about decay, however.  The algorithm for forming a list (or circle, or group, or whatever) is different when it's in a maintenance context, rather than a creation context.  Once a list exists, it's conceptually 'owned' by the user, and it's not appropriate for an algorithm to unceremoniously yank people from it, or add people to it.  Doing that sort of incremental list maintenance is tricky, but doable, and certainly valuable.

  • jazz tigan

    Interesting article, but let's dig beneath the marketing claims of each company and really consider their approaches. They all seem to be operating in the environment of the Facebook wall, an obsolete mentality. The new timelines are a seismic shift. The next version of timelines is going to eat the world. 

    http://tredeger.posterous.com/...

  • SUSAN

    ABOUT FACEBOOK AND DIFFICULTIES TRYING TO CONTACT FACEBOOK TO  RESOLVE A HACKING INTO OUR FORMER WEBSITE VIA A FACEBOOK USER 

    Can someone please help us we have a small honest and decent charity and recently it was hacked into and they totally defaced our entire website it was done  by two German men who did it through what appeared to be  a phony unopenable website called www.el-muhummud.org IT was  traced  to Facebook and what these two german men did  was they  accessed our Facebook Fan page and got the website address from there  we contacted the Australian Federal Police which is the equivalent of the FBI/CIA  they said these german men had been defacing a number of sites for over two weeks.I have tried to contact Facebook about this but it is impossible and recently in further increasing the privacy and security settings I removed an old phone number(which had previously been also hacked!) and replaced it with a  new number from the same carrier now Facebook will not allow log in approvals and denies that my new phone number exists because it is with a different carrier than optusnet or telstra in australia in fact my new number is with the same carrier as my old number was .In the meantime we had to rebuild a new website and at the time of the year when people are hopefully more generous to charities, so we have sustained financial loss due to cyber crime that came through a Facebook user. (on my personal page I have always had high privacy settings , but for a Fan page people do need to be able to access it ! . I cannot contact Facebook in Australia or in the USA to be able to report this properly. there series of questions dont work to adequately describe what has happened WHY WHY doesnt mark zuckerberg do something to improve this type of situation it is unfair not to be able to be able to properly report and communicate this kind of issue and abuse to a human being via telephone or even by a special customer support email address. if you choose one of their limited options to try to report it, if you do they threaten to lock down your account and how would that look to someone trying to follow a charity on facebook and to look at their fan page or  to go to their new website via the fan page ??? this has cost us loss of donations at a critical time of the year,caused us terrible stress and also expensethere is also a possibility  that the germans may have been neo-nazis masquerading as islamists to discredit Muslims by using the name they did to hack into our former website. it is under investigation by the Australian Federal Police but what can I do about Facebook?? 

    Can any one who is sane and familiar with this sort of situation please respond to this comment.

    I would prefer not to have close our Facebook fan page down but if its going to cost us the loss of donations as it has recently I will be left with no alternative .

    Can anyone suggest another social network that is global and with a high number of members and that is ethical I heard google was or is creating something similar to facebook does anyone know if this is ready or true or yet to come?

    Cyber crime is becoming a total nightmare for many people around the world.

    It is absolutely despicable to damage a charity website and beyond belief that a perfect stranger could callously do this and also try to steal our charitable identity for their own greed.

    I hope someone can help us find a way to contact facebook so we can get the assistance and guidance we need .l  

  • Richard M

    I think the article is right on in that people are looking for ways to leverage their own tight social graph. While FB and G+ are getting better at filtering and setting up lists/Circles, there are still opportunities that are focused on communicating the right message to a small circle of friends/coworkers/family.  We've built a new collaboration platform now in beta called CommonDeeds - www.commondeeds.com : focused on social collaboration to get real activities done. It's focused more on shared activities and results than just "chatter" or eyeballs.

  • Doug Bishop

    Ok seriously... this whole thing is going to loop back and people will realize that what they all really wanted was cool web forums.  

  • Chris Fuller

    Facebook has it right because it taps into our busy-lazy lives. Creating circles and groups and thoughtful posts is time-consuming and mind-consuming. Facebook let's you post it and forget it. On the other side, you can casually browse through your friends comments and posts in short fits or long stretches.

  • Derek

    Great article! I have noticed the strides on Facebook's behalf to fine-tune the way privacy settings operate. It's still not quite there...I think they just need a whole new approach, like Path and Google+.

    On a similar note, I kind of had a freak out moment last night and untagged/deleted a bunch of photos from Facebook, not knowing who could and could not see my pictures. Their photo services combined with the blunder of unorganized friends is so confusing and complicated; it needs to be changed. I almost decided to turn off all photos on my profile (due to friends taking random pictures and just batch uploading them ALL), but I gave up because 1) I couldn't FIND the option to do this and 2) I couldn't find the answer on GOOGLE. Frustrating!