Saturday, Sep 3, 2011 2:50 pm
William Barnes

I do my best not to criticize other people’s grammar, but if you’re a corporation, you should get it right. I just clicked the +1 button on an article and got told that I “publicly +1’d” the article. Is that correct? Or is like all the signs that say “CD’s”? I’m unsure. The apostrophe means that it is a contraction, i.e., something is missing. Is “+1’d” a contraction of “plus oned”? Or should it have been “+1ed”? Google should have picked a less awkward name for its like button.

Google Circles Revisited

Thursday, Jul 14, 2011 12:51 pm
William Barnes

I’ve been using Google+ for about a week now, and I like it. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe only because it’s like Facebook, but not Facebook. I can share things. I can post comments. I can’t really do anything I couldn’t do on Facebook. I’ve never used Hangouts, I’m not sure I’m likely to do so. My RSS aggregator is more useful than Sparks. The only difference is Circles, but I’m coming to the conclusion that Circles isn’t that great either.

Google Circles is based on the idea that we have different groups (circles) of people in our lives: family, friends, people we met at parties, etc. We don’t treat them equally in real life, why do it online? I think it’s a natural concept, but I’m pretty sure that Circles gets it wrong in subtle ways.

Why groups are better than circles

Difference between friends and people with shared interests

Facebook Groups are like circles that people choose to join. All members can see who is in the group and can talk to everybody in it, even if they aren’t “friends”. This reflects the fact that in plenty of formal groups (clubs, workplaces, etc) there is a shared interest, but your association with the members doesn’t go any further than that.

Let’s say I have an interest in widgets and I join the Toronto Widget Club (TWC). If that club has a group, then I join the group and have access to all the widget news and discussion I want. Updates from the group show up in my feed, but a lot of the discussion is segregated. When I make a fascinating widget discovery, I can post it to my wall for friends, to the group, or both. Contrast this with circles. Under the current system, I would have to obtain a list of people in the TWC and add them all to a circle. They would receive my widget posts, but also all my public posts. Many of them wouldn’t care about my personal life or other interests. Circles miss an important distinction between “friends” and “people with a shared interest”.

You might argue that this blurring is good because it might develop friendships where there was previously only a shared membership in the TWC. However, it may also cause friction where people, who tolerate each other in the pursuit of widgets, have otherwise conflicting (e.g., political) interests.

Difference between active and passive sharing

Oversharing could be addressed by never sharing anything publicly and deselecting the TWC when sharing non-widget information. However, when a member of the TWC takes the time to visit my profile, I think that I’d want them to learn about my other interests. This information would be hidden from them by Google+’s privacy settings. There is a difference between what I want to actively share with (broadcast to) a group of people and what I am comfortable with them having access to if they want to seek it out. I want to broadcast widget news to the TWC, but I want to passively share my other interests as well. Thus, they should be able to see political or other posts if they view my profile, but these shouldn’t show up in their feed unless we are friends outside the TWC.

Related to this point is the noticeable delineation between group posts and wall posts. Google+ doesn’t yet provide really good indicators that posts are just for certain groups. You have to look at the visibility of the post. It’s not clear whether a particular Google+ post is open to other circles or private to the TWC, whereas in a group there is a clear indication.

Difference between choosing and assigning membership

I already hinted at the problem when I said that members would have to obtain lists of group membership. In addition to that, they would each have to maintain their list. Groups are superior because there is a single canonical list. Further, you don’t have to rely on others to acknowledge your interest, you register it yourself. This also means that when you tire of widgets, you can remove yourself.

When are circles better than groups?

There are a few cases in which circles are better for groups. Circles are better when group membership is less defined or, more importantly, a sensitive matter. Groups require either public membership or an administrator who decides membership. This is fine for the TWC, but what about groups of friends. I have separate groups of pretty much non-overlapping friends; there is an unspoken consensus about who is in each one. It would be coarse to require them to join a group to find out what we’re doing on Friday. The additional effort of harmonizing the circles of various members is really just socializing and reflects the addition of a new person to a close group of friends.

Circles are not for privacy

First, a little rant on privacy. People expect miracles from social networks in terms of privacy. Rule number one for using the internet: do not say anything on the internet, except under pseudonym, that would terribly embarrass you if it became public. My favourite tweet regarding Google+ came in the early days when I had an invite, but they were at capacity. Unfortunately, I didn’t save it, but it essentially said “Posts you share with a circle can be reshared. Google+ FAIL“. Everything you say online can be reshared. The real weakest link in your privacy is your friends. They have to understand that you intend something to be private and they have to respect that. Of course, even if you trust your friends, you still have to worry about flaws in the software, so if you want something to stay private, then talk about it in person or at least use a medium that is intended for one-to-one conversation (chat, email, etc). I’m not saying Google should be held blameless for the privacy flaw that will inevitably occur, buy anybody who depends on Circles as a privacy guard is asking for trouble.

But Circles provide a little privacy

So what should you use circles for, then? You should use them only to insulate other circles from things they aren’t interested in. For example, people from work don’t need to read about the party you went to on the weekend. If you have two non-overlapping groups of friends, you may only want to share the photos with friends who were invited to that party.

On the Facebook feed, everybody is shouting in all directions, all the time. Circles lets you direct your voice a little bit better. In that sense, Circles provide a bare minimum of privacy. Think of it more like being at a party and standing with a group of people than being in a cone of silence.

How Google could improve Circles

Google+’s PR says that you have circles of friends and they’re not all the same. So why, then, are all my Google Circles the same? You should have more granular control over circles. Examples: whether you want to see Public or semi-Public (ie: “Your Circles”) posts from members of a circle or just ones that they explicitly share with you; whether people in that circle can see your Public or semi-Public posts.

There should be public circles. These would be just like groups (in fact, they could be Google Groups). Some could have open membership, some could be moderated. It would address the problem of canonical lists. Further, in combination with the above suggestion, it would allow you to communicate with people who only share a particular interest.

You should be able to post something that is broadcast only to particular circles, but is publicly visible on your profile. This is the biggest deal for me. I like to have things be public, but I would happily do a little work to shelter others from my oversharing. Until I can do this, I’ll probably be posting everything publicly and using Google+ just like Facebook. It also reflects the fact that one person is not always the best judge of what other people will find interesting. Maybe someone from elementary school will be interested in my night out, or have an insightful comment on a legal- or computer-related post. Why should I hide things from them?

Topical circles

I think that there is a different type of circle that I can’t quite define at the moment. I’m going to call it a topical circle for now. It is somewhat nebulous, like a circle of friends, but it is based on a shared interest like a public circle. It would be interesting if circles could be formed algorithmically for discussing particular topics. The post could be visible to friends of friends who could get in on the conversation and then be included in similar conversations in the future. Eventually, the circle would probably form into a more or less permanent group. That would be interesting.


Friday, Jul 1, 2011 11:45 am
William Barnes

In reply to “Google+ Everyone Should Use It“.

I don’t know about Circles as a privacy tool. It’s almost guaranteed that at some point (probably at multiple points), a bug will expose information from one circle to another. So I still wouldn’t say anything to a circle that I wouldn’t want going public.

One could use it to target certain groups with comments. I often make legal comments on Facebook that are only funny to people from school. But, then again, who am I to decide who would be interested in my posts? Let’s say I post a comment about a recent Supreme Court case. Sure, my school friends will probably be interested, but I bet that a number of non-law students would be, too. Coming from a different background, they might say something that nobody from school would have thought of. How am I supposed to know who will be interested in what? Tagging is a better solution to that. Let me say “This post is about ‘Law'” (or “Computers” or “Cake”) and then let my friends say “I don’t want to hear Billy talk about ‘Law’ anymore” and hide all those posts in the future.

Maybe I’m just bitter because they’re at capacity and I can’t sign in.

Unabashed sharing

Wednesday, Jan 21, 2009 11:45 pm
William Barnes

When this post on social networking was published by Rex Shoyama at IP Osgoode I tried a few times to write a comment on it, but each comment turned into a thoroughly rambling essay (to borrow a phrase). Social networking is, after all, a subject I have strong feelings about. But then I remembered: I’ve got a blog, I can post whatever I want there and it doesn’t matter if I ramble.

The article discusses a website (Power.com) that has found itself in a touch of legal trouble for offering an alternative front-end to Facebook (and other social networks, but Facebook is the one suing). What follows are just trains of thought that sprang from the article.

Ownership of profile data

Some people who are critical of Facebook’s position also feel that the users “own” the data in their profiles and therefore should not be stopped from using a service like Power.com.

“Some people” are going a bit far. Even if we own the information about ourselves in some manner, it doesn’t lead to a right to access it in any way we choose. Analogy time: I own a fancy watch that I store in a bank vault; do I have the right to access it with a bulldozer? Even though the watch is my property, my access is subject to conditions.

The desirability of “unabashed sharing”

We may want to query whether or not the ability to easily copy content from a friend’s profile in Facebook into other different social networks is necessarily a good thing (that particular friend may have made assumptions about how his Facebook content would be used and might not want his Facebook photos shared outside of Facebook).

I’m not sure the issue with Power.com is copying content from a friend’s profile to another social network. Rex may be addressing a concern raised elsewhere while he was researching; it doesn’t seem to tie in quite right with the rest of his article. But, that aside, it’s a fun question.

Power.com appears to simply query Facebook with your login credentials and reformat the data, giving you some extra functionality. In other words, it seems to be just a proxy. There is, of course, the potential for a service that would cache the information it gets using your login data. Such a service would be granted access to any information you have access to. Two issues spring to mind: (1) your friend hasn’t authorized the third-party service to see their data, (2) the data will lose its privacy meta-data and, if shared by the third-party, be exposed to people it was not meant for.

Regarding the first issue: unencrypted web traffic travels through so many third parties it’s hard to consider this imposition of just one more a serious violation. The second is more compelling. A user, Alan, might post a private photo on Facebook relying on Facebook’s privacy controls. Bob accesses Alan’s profile through a third party service, 3P. Charlie then uses 3P to access Alan’s profile which, handily, is already cached. 3P saves time by showing the same version Bob saw. Problem: 3P didn’t know that only Bob was allowed to see Alan’s photo. Oops.

I can see why you might want to limit where your profile data shows up, but I am of the opinion that trying to maintain such control is unrealistic. Social networks are designed to spread information fast and far. Privacy is an afterthought. The solution to users maintain control over their personal information is not to erect barriers that give only a false sense of security. People need to learn to keep their profiles clean: if a picture is embarrassing, don’t post it; if a wall-post is scandalous, delete it. Employers, girlfriends, parents, they’ll find a way to see it if they really want to. If you absolutely must share something with a few people that you could not stand to get out in the open, then use a service built for that purpose.

This is not to say “get rid of privacy controls.” But privacy controls on social networks can only provide a little bit of resistance, they won’t keep information secret.

Let the flowers breathe?

Ultimately, it seems prudent to encourage the taking of measured steps towards finding better ways to achieve desirable interoperability between social networks, rather than jumping right over the “walled gardens”.

I’m not much for prudence. I think that fewer walls are better for privacy. The fewer barriers there are and the easier it is to get most information, the less incentive there will be to take the rest.

If Facebook allowed other networks simple access to lists of content available through your account, then why would those networks need to actually access the content? MySpace might know that one of my friends posted a photo on their Facebook account, but there is no reason that photo can’t remain hosted at Facebook and subject to their privacy controls. It wouldn’t prevent people from developing an application like Power.com, but nothing will. The only solution is to stop people from needing such a service.

Take down the walls from the inside and fast, then people won’t tear them down from outside.

Owning your network

Thursday, Dec 11, 2008 12:47 pm
William Barnes

I know I’m not the first to lament the imprisonment of our social graphs. It was quite a trendy topic last year and last year I came up with a solution (only semi-original). Listening to the last episode of Net@Nite, I heard Amber and Leo hit quite close to my idea (then veer off) so I decided to write it down. I don’t claim that it is totally original–Google, Facebook, Google, and Google have come up with similar-ish ideas–but I think the scope is somewhat broader than they have in mind. All of these solutions still leave your data walled up on their servers.

The Problem

The basic problem is that I have accounts on countless social networks. I have Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal, Digg, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, Flickr, and tons more that are abandoned completely. I have at least two websites. On each network I have different groups of friends, different profile information, different statuses. I’m in high school on some, undergrad on others, and law school on a few. Each one likely has a different email address for me. This is my online identity. I’m the digital equivalent of a schizophrenic. And I’m sure it’s not just me. No doubt there are few people out there who have only a single social network, but there must be enough that have too many.

The further problem is that according to Facebook I have 200 or so friends. Most of these people are probably also on other networks, but I don’t know that. I have no way of moving my list of friends from one site to another. If I leave Facebook, then I lose this list. I have no control over something that is inherently mine (this was the trendy topic of last year: ownership of your own list of friends).


A lot of the work towards a solution has already been done. OpenID, Google Friend Connect, and Facebook Connect allow you to login to other sites with a profile established someplace else. There exist open standards for transmitting friend information like XFN and FOAF. But it’s not enough.

Central Identity

First, you need a central identity site. With good standardization, this could be hosted by anybody. It could be your Facebook profile, MySpace, Google, or some other service that pops up. And if you’re the sort who likes lots of control over their identity or just likes to play, you could host it yourself with some open source platform that would surely pop up. I will refer to the URL for this site as your CI. So, for example, my CI would be something like ‘webarnes.ca’ or ‘facebook.com/profile.php?id=28116640’ (I’m sure Facebook could come up with a prettier URL).

Your CI has to have tools for managing your friend list and your profile information since it’s going to be the location where the authoritative version of your graph is stored. It should have a display of activity on your different networks (like FriendFeed). So when I log in to my CI, it should inform me about wall posts on Facebook and @replies on Twitter. Some of the networks will be complex enough that I have to go there to use them, but I want a central dashboard to let me know when I need to go.

Signing up

When you sign on to another social network, you should have the option of making it your CI or making it subservient (a more PC term might be more appropriate) to a CI hosted someplace else. So assuming I’m using ‘webarnes.ca’ to host my CI and I want to sign up for Facebook. I tell Facebook where my CI is and we do that little handshake that you should be familiar with if you’ve used OpenID or Facebook Apps. My CI gives Facebook permission to access my profile information (and I should be able to select exactly what I want to share) and lets it download an XML list of my friends (all identified by their own CIs). Facebook goes through its database to find out if any of my friends have accounts and automatically adds them. In theory, my friends should have me listed as friends at their CI, so it shouldn’t even require authorization.

Now I’ve signed up, filled out my profile and added my friends in half a dozen mouse clicks and a line of text. What next?

Finding friends

Let’s say I find a friend on Facebook that I haven’t met elsewhere. I add him, he accepts (his name is John Smith). Facebook then pings my CI with this new information. My CI adds this new guy to this list and then starts contacting all the other social networks I’m a part of (it knows this because I linked them at sign up). Soon John Smith is added to my friends list at Flickr and wherever else. The way this works could be customized by different CI hosts. Perhaps I want to log in to my CI and selectively add John to only MySpace and LiveJournal; I don’t want to add him on Twitter perhaps. There might be some networks–like Twitter–where you don’t necessarily want to add everyone you know. That should be possible.

Blogging and status-ing (for lack of a better term)

Streams of information on different sites could be published as RSS feeds. They could be pushed to your CI and disseminated to your other profiles. A status change on Facebook might also change my status on MSN or MySpace. A blog post on WordPress would show up as a note on Facebook. Ideally comments on all of these would be synced back to my CI (because it is so very annoying when people comment on my Facebook notes instead of on the original blog post). There would be some privacy issues to work out, I’m sure, but it could be done.


This probably won’t happen. It’s too complex for most people. But it could be done behind their backs. Why should I have to confine myself to Facebook because most of friends do? My Facebook profile could easily be a mirror of a profile someplace else. Facebook would compete by providing the best central identity site. I really wish it would happen.

I apologize if this was a bit rambling. I might post some more ideas in the future that are more in depth and clear. I just felt the need to write something about since I’ve been thinking on it for so long.

Image source: terinea