July 11, 2011

Warning! Social Networks Are Made Out of People!

Having lived through the rise and fall of FriendFeed, the slow rise and then rapid quickening of Twitter, and the "not quite right for this world" debut and subsequent dismissal of Buzz, I practically feel like a grizzled old social networking veteran. (But don't say expert, for that meets with an icy stare of doom) Now that the digerati and their extended circles are finding their way to Google+ and poking the system for cracks, learning what works and what doesn't, and counting each others' numbers, we're in reruns over people deciding what activity should or should not be permissible. And once again, the tools are always there to help the user deal with something that isn't a perfect match for their interests.

As you know, my bias is toward systems having the capability to learn my interests, and show me what I want to see, while avoiding that which I don't. It's what my6sense is all about, and why I've tried my unfair share of personalization tools. But barring these systems, people need to understand that you just might find content that isn't what you're looking for, and you should just keep going - even in new-fangled systems like Google+, where circling people according to the content they share, or the content you want to share them, is a major defining feature.

As mentioned last week in my serious but slightly tongue in cheek guide to "giving good social", you should both "Prove You're a Human" while also "Learning the Community" (points 6 and 7 for those keeping track). This is something I experienced early on with FriendFeed, in 2008, as sharing my family as part of my online personae became a defining element. When I went days or weeks without updates on the kids, or pictures and video, I would get all sorts of private messages (or public messages) demanding I provide more. So I make no apologies for the occasional baby photo or family update that creeps into my otherwise tech-centric feed.

Bindu Yesterday on Google+, Remarking on the Felinity of Her Feed

The thing about social networks is that they are built out of people. While this makes cynics say that "You are the Product", in essence, they are right. Social networks are simply tools and systems configured to help you get in touch with or update your connections in simple ways or innovative ways. I would no sooner ask my friends to stop talking about movies and television or sharing their favorite recipes as I would tell them how to dress or wear their hair. If there's too much "nonsense" or silliness at a certain time or with a certain group, I know that things will return to the mean.

Did Somebody Ask for Baby Photos? Here You Go.

In the early days of Google+, a lot of the talk was about Google+. In theory, this is somewhat normal as well. Those posts dedicated to top tips, how tos, or simply repeating Google updates, were among the most shared across the network. People complained about the "Meta" feeling this brought. But Twitter has been the same way. Tweets about Twitter get retweeted. FriendFeed posts about FriendFeed got engagement. Social sites love hearing about themselves, and people love positive reinforcement that tells them they have made the right decision to spend their time in one place or another.

And as soon as the "Hey! We're here!" wears off, then will come the sharing of real world activities, just like real people, settling down and using the tools as they were designed. That means cat photos, baby pictures, food shots, glamor pics, TV reviews, and Justin Bieber. Deal with it. Some of the pure tech followers will grimace, but hope is just a mute button or a reassignment in Circles away. At least products like FriendFeed, Google+ and Facebook have given you that option to hide specific updates from people, whereas with Twitter you pretty much get all of it or none of it.

In this honeymoon phase of Google+, you are going to see a tug of war of sorts between those people who can't wait for the masses to be invited in, and those who dread it. Like every social situation, those who were there first will feel an air of superiority over the newbies, and the newbies will change the network to fit their own interests. It's the way of the world. Google+ was designed to ready you for this, as people come in and you assign them appropriately, and tools are coming soon to Facebook to automatically categorize folks in much the same way.

MyLikes CEO Bindu Reddy, (Standard disclosure: I am an advisor to MyLikes) with a smile no doubt, said "Beginning to see some cat pictures in my feed already... Next come the babies :))" yesterday morning, a sure sign that people were settling in. It's a good thing. When I shared a photo of a Sunday evening picnic with the family, however, a less happy user challenged me, saying, "Doesn't this fit better into your Family circle? Just asking..." and when I said I disagreed, he responded, "Then you are misusing Google+. Don't get me wrong, your twins are cute and everything, but I'm only interested in your tech related posts.. And you could spare me, and others, the effort to mute this kind of posts."

Oh No! Someone Thinks I Am Using Google+ Wrong!

Having been through this before, it doesn't bug me. I think he's wrong, and he can't force me to put pictures of my kids in a secret place that only my family and closest friends can see. There will be occasions when some of those shares will be to a limited circle, but other times, it's for everyone. Similarly, I started a regular tradition called #StoryCircle (as noted by ReadWriteWeb) that encourages people to share a story about themselvse that's personal. I did the same thing on FriendFeed (then called #SaturdayFF). I may stay awake to stupid hours and read and share my unfair percentage of content, but I am not a robot, and I don't expect to behave like one. So if you are investing your time in a social network that is made out of people, you should expect people to act like people. If you can't handle people being real, then you probably need to make an adjustment to your expectations.

Of course, with leaderboards debuting, and numbers jumping for practically everyone, it can be easy to lose sight of why people are participating in these places, eschewing real conversation for statistical games. But no matter my numbers, I will continue to be human, and expect you to do the same. If I don't like what you share, you can be sure I'll move you around, and I expect you'll do the same as well, but attacking humans for being human leaves everyone just a bit more alone.

Disclosures: I am an unpaid advisor to MyLikes and have a small equity stake. I am VP of Marketing at my6sense. Also, the main image is via Wikia.com and can be found here.

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