Circles and Lists and the Problem of Plenty

This post is not about a comparison between Facebook and Google+, but rather my thoughts on the problem of sub-networks within a social network.

I have been to three schools in life: high school, engineering school and business school. That makes it three networks. Three non-overlapping networks. In each of these networks there are close friends, good friends, friends and acquaintances. So if I were to ever create a list or a circle of one of these networks it would not really reflect my true social associations.

So the next thing I can do is keep all the close friends in one list or circle, all other friends in another and acquaintances in yet another. Solves my problem, right? Wrong. What I share with my close friends from high school may not be what I want to share with my close friends from business school. Well, I could then create lists and circles within each of these networks. Which would now make it at least nine lists to manage. And I have not even considered family, co-workers (and there are three networks here as well) and friends outside of any of these networks.

So when I want to share something with one of my circles it becomes easy. But not quite so. The overhead of managing so many lists, choosing who to share with in the spur of the moment and worrying if I missed out on someone is going to make my life tough. So what is the solution. Public broadcast. And then hope that the right people in your network actually respond to you. That is exactly how things happen today. We basically outsource the job of segmentation to the segments themselves. (While being smart not to broadcast the most personal of thoughts and moments.)

But is this a real problem? The problem of segmenting people online? Absolutely. I just don’t think putting people in circles and lists solves it though. In real life we are very good at this because we do it implicitly without putting much thought to it. We just know what to share with whom. The sheer number of virtual circles this translates to creates a real problem that ultimately makes us revert to the default of public broadcast.

The asymmetric nature of circles and lists creates another very significant problem. That of social context. I have a set of people in a particular circle but they do not know about it. So when I share something with a circle the members of that circle who receive that update do not know who else sees that update. So they may be then apprehensive of sharing back because the social segmentation problem is very real. So what is the solution? The only online social object that comes any close to solving this problem online is groups where everyone knows who else is a member of that group and is, hence, aware of the social context. More on that in another post.

Meanwhile we can continue debating whether circles or lists will solve our social segmentation problem.

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