G+: Circles vs. Identity

All the conversation about social networking right now is of course about Google+.  I’m not going to bother recapping that: most of you know about it (and I think that XKCD summed up the current state pretty well), and a lot of you are already on it.  They do a lot right, and I fully expect it to improve rapidly, but let’s talk a bit about the biggest goof that I’ve seen so far.

The big deal about Google+ is the notion of “circles”.  These aren’t nearly as revolutionary as they’re made out to be (from the thousand-foot view, they’re similar to Facebook’s Lists), but they’re unusually well-executed and well-integrated.  The key observation Google made, correctly, is that most people run in multiple circles, and that those circles need to be front-and-center to the experience, not considered a minor detail.  I put a lot of information online, and different information should be shared with different circles.

So why, for heaven’s sake, do I have only one profile?  I suspect that the answer is that they simply tied into the existing Google Profile mechanism, and that they have been too influenced by Facebook.  But seriously, it indicates that they haven’t thought their own key insight through properly.

The thing is, for many people — possibly most — circles are more than just groups of people.  It’s not just that I am sharing different things with those people, it’s that I am potentially a different person to those people.  And I don’t mean in some sinister way, I mean the routine stuff: it’s almost cliche to say that we present multiple faces to the world, and it’s kind of astonishing that that hasn’t been properly recognized.

For me personally, this is a relatively minor detail: I’ve never tried to keep much separation between the real-world Mark and the better-known nom du SCA and plume and stuff Justin.  But for a lot of people, this separation really matters.  A common example or two:

  • I have many friends who participate in alternative lifestyles of one sort or another.  For many of them, it is deathly critical that they keep that well-separated from mundane life and especially from work — in some cases, crossing those identities could be a career-ender.
  • Almost every teenager is on social networks nowadays.  And let’s get real: most of them want to maintain a clean separation between the family side of the network and the friends side.  That’s normal and healthy — modern parental paranoia aside, teens need space to learn and grow on their own.
  • One flap that’s blown up pretty seriously lately surrounds the question of gender identification.  That points up the fact that these different identities potentially don’t publicly identify the same way.  Specifically, I suspect that some of the women I know would very much like to have multiple profiles, some of which identify as female (mainly for friends) and others which are specifically gender-neutral (for public consumption).

There are other examples, but it all ties together.  Google has bought into Facebook’s dreadfully mistakenbelief that you can and should only have one identity online, that it must be associated with your real name, and that it must be shared among all your circles.  This is uncharacteristically dumb of them: there is no good argument for it, and lots of reasons — the above and more — to kill it.

So here’s a specific gauntlet thrown down to Google: get the identity equation right.  You got conversation mostly right with Wave; you’ve gotten a lot of the social interactions right with G+.  But your identity mechanism is just plain broken.  People should have the ability to have an arbitrary number of identities, and the requirement to tie those publicly to real-world identity should be just plain scrapped.

(And let’s be clear here: I’m not calling for anonymity.  Anonymity is death to most social environments online.  I am calling for pseudonymity to be officially permitted and encouraged, so that people can present the appropriate face to the appropriate circles.)

Opinions?  Do you present multiple faces to the online world?  Would you use multiple profiles, if the option existed?

29 Responses to “G+: Circles vs. Identity”

  1. Alex Feinman Says:

    Thanks for breaking this down. Your point brought a few thoughts to mind.

    1. For some people, separation of identities can literally be a life-or-death situation. You hint at this, but it should be made explicit, as it is surprising to some folks. A recent example is the therapist that was killed by a patient at her workplace; other therapists might seek to participate in an online service, but be unable to do so because of the danger of being stalked by violent clients who are having a bad day. Another example we’ve heard used is of a woman seeking to avoid an abusive ex-husband. Similarly, a court case ruled that social media chatter about a bad boss was covered under the same rules as “water cooler chatter”, but that was dicey and it’s still not clear where the boundaries are. So why not have a separate identity from the one your boss sees?

    2. “When you’re here, you’re Mark.” As you say, our identity is necessarily shaped by the group you are currently in. This is such a persistent part of human society that it is apparent it fills some social need.

    From a psychological standpoint, identity is co-constructed during our interaction with those around us. As a result, we end up having identities that look different around different groups of people. When group boundaries are crossed, we must do extra work socially to integrate, and that’s a small price to pay for the benefits from having smooth intra-group interactions.

    Yes, there’s one person at the middle of it; but that’s a fatal oversimplification, a database engineer’s need for a unique primary key. It’s nearly irrelevant. Social networking software is billed as software to help you connect with people, and one of the ways we connect with people is to build an identity that reflects them as well as ourselves.

    Once again the structure of Google Plus has made it clear that the ‘problem’ being solved is “how do we store a bunch of information relating to a single person”, with the (feared?) implicit goal of “so we can market them things”. In an ideal world, designers would center around the behaviors they want to enable, and implementation would fall out of that. If I want to be a warlock on Wednesdays with *this* set of friends, and a turnip on Thursdays with *that* set of friends, what does Google care?

    • Justin Says:

      Yep, totally agreed. On the DB engineer point, the problem is that they’ve oversimplified the schema, missing the fact that “person” and “identity” aren’t the same datatype. The first is the key uniqueness: it’s the login that gathers all these things together, controls permissions, and stuff like that. The second is *a* public face that I show to others, but there may be many identities linked to a single person.

      (Having done all this DB design for CommYou, it’s all pretty clear in my head…)

      • John Stracke Says:

        I’d say the term you want is “persona”, rather than “identity”. “Identity” will push the wrong buttons when talking to a DB programmer; if you talk about “persona”, you can get them to think in terms of the user wearing the appropriate mask for each context.

      • John Stracke Says:

        Or perhaps “view” would resonate better with DB programmers.

      • Justin Says:

        “View”: yeah, but not to ordinary users. (And really, it’s just too generic a term.) “Persona” I could buy…

  2. michaelkleber Says:

    Of course, Google _does_ offer you a way to keep your multiple identities separate: Use multiple accounts. In that case, not even Google needs to know that they are the same person.

    There are inconveniences there, of course, generally surrounding people with whom you interact under both identities. But if you need any sort of guarantee that no one will figure out the two identities really are the same person, then keeping them truly separate seems like the only safe solution.

    • Justin Says:

      True as a workaround, and appropriate in the life-and-death cases. But unsatisfying for the middle ground.

      And frankly, Google’s opened the door here: the same applies for most arguments for circles. At this point, they’re in a squishy neither-fish-nor-fowl middle ground — like I said, I have a strong feeling that they don’t quite understand the point that they’re trying to make. Circles are an implicit statement that I exist differently with different groups of people. This is true — but that logic should extend in a much more disciplined way across my online identities. Circles as they now exist feel a bit ad-hoc and incomplete…

      • pdurbin Says:

        Justin, can you please elaborate on why multiple accounts on Google+ is not a solution for you? I’m experimenting with multiple accounts and it’s working fine for me. Thanks.

      • Justin Says:

        My experience is that, over the long run, multiple accounts essentially decay. I’ve done this on various networks over the years, and the usual result for me (and, I’ve observed, for most people) is that the “secondary” accounts wind up falling by the wayside due to simple hassle. In the case of Google, this is a really serious hassle: changing accounts tends to log me out of everything, which is a major hassle — I want/need to be logged into my main Google account more or less all the time.

        Mind, I have several Google accounts for various reasons. In practice, I’ve found it relatively difficult to keep up all but the main one, due to this day-in-day-out nuisance. It’s not a big deal, but in the statistical aggregate it causes decay: you generally wind up neglecting all but one account, because it’s too much nuisance to maintain the rest. It functions, and if you have sufficient motivation it can work, but in practice it’s a hackish workaround rather than a proper solution.

        Plus, there is the strong (explicit? I haven’t checked the wording — it’s certainly explicit for Facebook) pressure for profiles to use real-world identifying information, which entirely defeats pseudonymity if you follow the rules. Plain and simply, most uses for multiple accounts are technically illegal. Granted, many people ignore that rule, but it’s closely related, a similar failure to understand that online identity (or as suggested, “persona”) does not map 1-to-1 with legal identity, nor should it.

        So a proper in-tool solution, recognizing that a single login can correspond to a number of personae, would be a considerable improvement — it would make it much easier to monitor and work with those personae, and therefore reduce the tendency for them to be neglected. It’s not a trivial matter (getting the affordances right is tricky, and would require serious design work), but would be a major improvement in the situation…

      • Philip Durbin Says:

        Justin, with regard to Google, I disagree with your statement “most uses for multiple accounts are technically illegal.” Check out Google’s “Using multiple accounts simultaneously” page at http://www.google.com/support/accounts/bin/topic.py?topic=28776 . Especially compared with Facebook, whose terms of service state, “You will not create more than one personal profile,” Google is quite friendly to multiple accounts.

        I tend to simply use different browsers or different Firefox profiles for my different Google accounts and have no trouble keeping everything current, but perhaps Google’s “multiple sign in” feature would be useful to you. If so, you can suggest it for Google+ at http://www.google.com/support/accounts/bin/static.py?page=suggestions.cs

        I’ll also mention that the Google+ Android app supports multiple accounts. It’s a hack right now, but Google is working on improving the experience. See this thread I started titled “Can I use multiple Google/Gmail accounts from the Google+ Android App” for details: https://groups.google.com/a/googleproductforums.com/d/topic/google-plus-discuss/gwHbbwwiOys/discussion

        Going back to Circles for a moment, I think I’ll stick with multiple accounts on Google+ simply because I’m inclined to post publicly (see Jeff Atwood’s http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2007/04/when-in-doubt-make-it-public.html article) and by posting publicly I have no control over the audience. The few people that care about both my thoughts on technology and my family can put both of my Google+ accounts in circles. Those few people are already used to this from Twitter (@philipdurbin vs. @phildurbin).

        I’m reminded of Jeff Jarvis’s take on identity: http://www.buzzmachine.com/2011/03/08/one-identity-or-more/ . The post itself bothers me, but I like the comment, “There’s nothing wrong with separating personal and professional, and sometimes the best way to do that is with multiple ‘identities’. That has nothing to do with ‘being myself’ and has everything to do with respecting the time and interests of others.”

        I guess I’m left wondering if anyone is getting identity “right” for your use case. Does Diaspora serve your needs? Dreamwidth? Some other software?

      • Justin Says:

        Heading to bed momentarily, and I might respond in more depth tomorrow, but a quick response to the final point: mostly not, no. Keep in mind, I am *very* close to this problem: I was running a garage startup called CommYou until Wave put me out of business by doing about half of what I was up to. The other half — the stuff that Wave didn’t even touch on — was working through the identity problem very carefully, pulling together many use cases and trying to get the abstractions correct. Google+ is dealing with a bunch of the rest, albeit still missing a bunch of the details yet.

        So yes, I’m very critical, but it’s from a viewpoint that Google keeps coming so *close* to doing what I was trying to accomplish with CommYou. It makes the disappointment very sharp when (in my opinion) they miss key nuances…

      • Philip Durbin Says:

        Hi Justin, a couple things. . . On the subject of any software that gets multiple identities or personas right, a colleague at work pointed out that Thunderbird does this well, and I have to agree. It’s easy to set up multiple email accounts and toggle between them.

        Also, in a 2010 Google I/O presentation, Joseph Smarr addressed multiple identities this way, “What if users want to keep separate profiles / friends? – That’s fine, just let them control their ‘discoverable identifiers'” — page 79 of http://dl.google.com/googleio/2010/social-building-fluid-social-experiences-across-websites.pdf

  3. Michael Baron Says:

    I think a wonderful option would be to allow circles to be pubic, private, or hidden. That is to say, have who I’ve “circled” be able to be viewed by anyone (useful for groups of tradesmen, activists, newsies, or anyone you want to be able to be found by or find associated with you), only viewed by the members of the circle (useful for friends, subcultures, family members), or not visible to anyone but you.

    Not being able to see what circles someone’s in, but being able to see you’ve added someone to a circle only half-solves the problem. Anyone can look at my G+ and figure out I’m on fark.com, just by looking at the network I’m involved in. It doesn’t **say** I’ve added users to a fark circle, but with a little bit of work with a venn diagram you could easily figure out there’s a definite thing going on there, and a little bit of sleuthing would clue you in to its exact nature.

    The same goes for my SCA friends. You could do the same exact thing there.

    And I’d like to be able to have it show a different name when I’m posting community activism related stuff, i.e., my real name, and a psuedonym regarding other things, because that’s how people KNOW me. A little bit of google work links them together and gives you my phone number, so I’m not worried about anonymity, but recognition.

  4. jan Says:

    I think there is a fix for this :P

  5. Olav Says:

    I sent feedback to Google regarding something along these lines yesterday, specifically regarding the ‘links’ section of the profile. Granted, I hadn’t specifically thought of the situation where one may want to present *different* profile information to different circles, but rather that there at least needs to be more granularity as to *what* information is presented to those circles. The links are currently limited to all ‘public’ or all private to a circle or circles. I’m not a terriblly private person so far as what I put on line, but I too would like to be abe to do things like share website profile links with those that are associated with that website only, and still have things like links to my personal web projects be public.

  6. Darker Says:

    I agree that identity management would be a good thing to have, but I think inferring that Google doesn’t get this from what they’ve rolled out on Google+ is over-reading the situation. Their current goal is not to have the perfect product, but to have one that will gather users well enough to overcome the chicken-and-egg problem that social sites experience. Simplicity is a major virtue in that effort.

    http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/06/inside-google-plus-social/all/1 mentions that the (internal) feedback on the early versions of Google+ was “too complicated”.

    • Justin Says:

      Fair point, and I hope you’re correct. It worries me, though: this is the sort of thing that tends to get very rooted in DB schemas, and hard to change later…

  7. hearthwife Says:

    Actually, this issue (though I hadn’t identified it myself) is I think what has so far stopped me from posting anything at all. Google said ‘you are a single identity, please tag that identity’, and I typed several words including ‘mom’. Once I had typed that one fateful word, and seen it at the top of my profile, I was hemmed in by it, and frankly I don’t think my momness is all that interesting to anyone else, so I did post anything.

    I like to think of myself as reasonably self-aware, but I didn’t even notice that it was the identity issue which left me adrift.

  8. Monica Says:

    Good post. I do not myself need multiple identities, but I *would* like to be able to have profile information that is only available to people in certain circles. For example, I’m not posting my employer — you can find out, but I don’t want to make it too easy lest I inadvertantly say something that violates our policies about what can be said publicly. But I would share that information with my friends if I could restrict it. Similarly, I haven’t posted my SCA name or details about my significant religious activities; it’s not something potential employers need to see. But I would readily share it with a more limited audience.

    • John Stracke Says:

      G+ does have that. I’ve got my SCA name under Other Names, and it’s visible only to my SCA circle.

      The only data which have to be publicly visible are your Real Name and your gender. (No, I’m not stepping into that minefield.)

      • Monica Says:

        True, on a field-by-field basis I can do that (thanks for pointing it out). But if I want some jobs in the employment section to be visible to all (some past ones) and others to be restricted (current employer: close friends; current congregational job: congregants), or I want to include paragraphs in the general comments for all and others for certain audiences, or vary the contact info, I can’t do that yet.

  9. cvirtue Says:

    Didn’t MySpace get into hot water due to pseudonyms and the ease with which they were abused by purported sex offenders? Possibly the social sites which say “use your real name” (FB, sort of Google+, probably others) are trying to sidestep this in advance.

    • Justin Says:

      Can’t swear it didn’t happen, but my suspicion is that this is overcautious lawyers talking rather than law if so — there hasn’t exactly been a wave of lawsuits putting pseudonym-permitting sites out of business…

  10. Amanda Says:

    But… you basically *can* have separate profiles.
    If you view your profile, you can see “View Profile As” on the right-hand side. You can lock down your profile to show different things to different circles or individuals. So I can have an “SCA Profile” that shows to that Circle with an SCA Bio in my introduction. And another one for writing. When I see my profile, I see *everything* — but I can test out with “View Profile As” to remember what certain groups see.

  11. Cynthia Says:

    Amanda, where is the area that I could put an SCA Bio that isn’t seen by everyone? If I go to “edit profile” there is no button that says “edit a profile to be seen by Circle X.”

    • John Stracke Says:

      Individual fields can be marked “visible only to these circles”. Click on the globe icon (globe for public–once you’ve changed it, it’ll be a circle icon).

      • Cynthia Says:

        No, John. It’s true that I can limit who can see the various fields, but I can’t have *multiple* entries for “bio” (or whatever) that I can then designate.

        So I can’t have one introduction that says “I’m primarily interested in medieval headwear” that is only shown to my SCA circle, and I can’t have another introduction that says “I am a surban woman interested in home gardens and beekeeping” that shows to the public.

      • John Stracke Says:

        Good point.

  12. cvirtue Says:

    I sent a Feedback to G+ about this topic, but the more the merrier. Justin, would you be interested in distilling this down to a sentence or three for using in such feedback letters? Might get more people writing in.

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