February 17, 2010

Buzz, Facebook, and social flatland

With the dust beginning to settle from Google’s widely-criticized Buzz launch last week, it would seem the bad assumptions on Google’s part are pretty clear: Google thought it almost certain that you’d like to turn your most frequently-corresponded-with contacts into publicly-visible social networking friends, with only a fine print opt-out between you and any unwanted connections. Or maybe they knew their assumptions were wrong and hoped you wouldn’t notice.

However you choose to interpret the Buzz launch, though, its failings ride on top of a more fundamental problem with the most popular social networks: the entire model of social networking, from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter, is broken. It’s based on the interpretation of database tables, not on how humans naturally interact.

Honey, you forgot this at home

Here’s the problem: The dominant social networking paradigm is completely point-to-point. Our real-life social networks aren’t like that at all—they’re much closer to a hub-and-spoke model. Even from a young age, we meet different people in different contexts. We form discrete groups from discrete sets of people, generally with little overlap. Before the social networking revolution, the only time everyone you know would be present in the same forum would be at major events in your life, such as perhaps the end of it. Now it’s every day on the Internet.

Did you feel that slight trepidation the first time someone outside the first group of friends you connected with on a social networking site sent you a friend request? A vague tingling of memories of a parent showing up at school in front of your peers, or an older brother crashing the party with your friends? That sense is the result of a social flatland—to adapt a UI term from the estimable Bruce Tognazzini, who popularized it in application to Apple’s tendency to reject hierarchy and sorting for simplicity’s sake, it’s what happens when all your friends end up communicating with you simultaneously in the same space.

Unflattening your friends

Social networking sites have made attempts to address the inadequacies of social flatland. From the beginning, Facebook had its “networks,” which at least recognized individuals’ belonging to multiple, discrete groups, even if the groups were lumped together anyway. With the deprecation of Facebook networks, its “lists” feature with per-post privacy is the closest yet to real-life social networks—but the UI for it is far from intuitive and defaults to flatland.

There are some up-and-comers who get it. The closest thing to a real-life social networking site may actually be a blogging platform: Posterous, the email-powered blogging site, lets users create separate, multi-user private blogs and invite users to them. Tumblr provides similar functionality, if not quite as seamlessly. Even Twitter, partly by virtue of simplicity, doesn’t put any major roadblocks between you and multiple accounts to represent you in your different spheres, any of which can be easily made private. It’s not uncommon for Twitter clients to support fast account switching right out of the box.

Then again, it’s often fun to introduce friends to each other. It can be rewarding: Sometimes, the unexpected meeting of mutual friends can be a fortuitous pleasure. Other times, it can be a disaster.

Which is why, all things considered, it’s generally better to make those connections yourself.