Summary: ‘Social circles’ may be an early sign of sociability in social networking. Google’s approach starts with respecting sharing and privacy boundaries.
Update: (10 years on) The sociability approach was lost in tech history. The approach was proposed by Paul Adams (who went to Intercom and authored the highly recommended book Grouped). Adams started at Google, went to Facebook, and implemented similar sociability features, though they seem to have been lost in Facebook’s troubled history of privacy design.
The recent release of Google’s social circles (part of the new ‘Google +‘ social network) is particularly exciting since I think it constitutes a social interface that accounts for real-world considerations. This contrasts the user experience approach of the largest social network in the world and a top 10 hated company in America: Facebook.
I am particularly excited to see how Social Circles plays out since it’s a social interface design approach we have used with Experience Dynamics clients for the past three years. It’s also exactly the approach included in the redesign of Facebook exercise, featured at the end of my recent privacy UX webinar.
What are Social Circles?
Video: Google promotional video for Social Circles
In short, social circles give you control over how you categorize your contacts and what you broadcast to them. It’s a sharing system that accounts for real-world social behavior that naturally categorizes, includes, and excludes for example, your church friends from your work, friends from your family, and drinking buddies (as one developer put it to me several years ago).
Social circles fulfill a critical need in social networking: the need for users to exert influence and control over social fabric (distance or closeness of people to information, values, and personal behaviors).
Are experiments with ‘Social circles’ and early signs of sociability?
More people than you might think are using social circles. When I first started thinking seriously about social circles, around 2008, I ran into Steven Blyth’s brilliant thesis project, The Social Fabric. The idea originally aimed at a PDA, but with implications on any device or app, was that an avatar would indicate to you non-verbally how well you had been nurturing your contacts/ communications/ friendships. A colleague you had not contacted or were somehow ignoring would be illustrated with an avatar’s posture, e.g., his back turned to you.
Check this video demo of social fabric sociability concepts.
Several years ago Chris Collison mused about social circles and captured the essence of the need for such a mechanism succinctly:
Some overlap will happen in social networks but maintaining boundaries helps you keep professional contacts eyes off of your private matters, your personal goings on, your family status, your childrens’ accomplishments, etc.
Marcos Weskamp created social circles as a way to manage the fragmentation of persons in a mailing list environment:
At a glance it allows an easy way of grasping the whole situation by highlighting who is participating, who is “visually” central to that group, and displaying the topics everyone is talking about.
Paul Adams, who (update 2015) brought social circles to Google and Facebook, more recently fleshed out the idea of social circles nicely in his “Bridging the gap between our online and offline social network”presentation and a new book called Grouped.
Social circles are an approach to privacy user experience that takes us a step closer to the main point of social networking: To let the user have control of her social fabric in order to leverage the most from social and data effects. Ultimately the design of social interfaces should help users to communicate more effectively, be less misunderstood and increase tolerance while protecting the user’s privacy and personal situation- whatever that may be (defined by them, not the system).
If you are involved in designing for social interaction (e.g. a social networking site or app or social software), you should pay close attention to the approach of the social circle. One of the proven benefits of conducting field studies is to extract real-world social phenomena and accommodate it in your interface and user experience strategy. We call that sociability.