This is just the beginning – Are you thinking inside out?

Disclaimer reminder: I currently work at Facebook and worked on Google+ up until the end of 2010. This post does not reflect anything I did at Google, or anything I’m doing at Facebook, and is simply my personal opinion about the state of the world.

Since Google+ launched last week, many people have been asking me my opinion about it. Unfortunately I can’t talk about specifics (hello, non-disclosure agreements) but I can talk broadly about the state of the world.

When it comes to representing relationships online, there are two big questions:
1. Our offline relationships are very complex. Should we try and replicate the attributes and structure of those relationships online, or will online communication need to be different?
2. If we do try and replicate the attributes of our relationships, will people take the time and effort to build and curate relationships online, or will they fall back to offline interactions to deal with the nuances?

We’re only at the beginning of trying to answer these questions. Google+ is a well designed product, but it is not “the solution” to the problem of representing complex relationships online. In fact, there probably isn’t “one solution”.

If you think about the first question above, Google+ is both trying to replicate offline social network structures (with circles) and build social network structures that are unique to the online world (with following, and with the fact that anyone can add anyone to a circle, independent of whether these people have met offline). Is this the best approach? No-one knows. If history has taught us anything, it’s that trying to predict the future is a fools game. Especially when that future is wrapped up in complex relationships and network effects. Remember, this is just the beginning.

The second question is the big unanswered one. Most user experience problems can be defined with the simple equation: Is the effort I need to go through worth the perceived benefit? Is the effort of creating circles, and managing them over time, worth the perceived benefit of sharing to those circles? Is the effort of figuring out who is in the audience of someone else’s circle worth the perceived benefit of the value derived from commenting? Again, no-one knows the answer to this question. But it’s going to be fascinating to see it play out.

Finally, it’s worth noting a trend that will make the task of representing relationships online even harder. Many fields of science are starting to discover that most of our behavior is driven by our non-conscious brain, not by our conscious brain. This refutes much of our understanding of how the world works. When we meet people, for the first time, or for the ten thousandth time, there are far too many signals for the conscious brain to take in, analyze, and compute what to do. So our non-conscious brain does the analysis for us, and delivers a feeling, which determines how we react and how we behave. It’s our non-conscious brain that will be deciding which social network succeeds and which one fails. It’s going to take most, if not all, of our lifetime to figure out what is happening in the non-conscious brain. This is just the beginning.

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