Of all social tools still going strong today, twitter’s use of the follow/follow back as a means of launching and gaining traction has been the most copied. I can’t think of a faster way to populate a new social service than to connect new members by means of following/following back. Facilitated by oAuth account access to other social sites, this approach becomes even more quick. And it’s genuinely useful: users don’t have to think of who to follow — they are shown who they follow already, and asked to confirm or ignore.
The follow works so well because it is gestural. It places no obligation on the user followed to reciprocate, but is rewarding if reciprocation follows. It’s a social solution to a bit of technical awkwardness: how to initiate, invite, solicit, and communicate a connection request without doing so verbally or explicitly.
It’s interesting to see, then, Circles in action these past few days. Circles are ostensibly a means of organizing friends and colleagues into groups that make a bit more sense of the social graph. Given that the social graph is already in many ways an imperfect and inaccurate representation of one’s social connections. (The social graph is flat. Social relationships are lumpy.)
But Google+ notifies Circle activity. What then might have been kept private becomes social. My act of adding people to circles notifies them of the fact, and the system notification by Google+ to those people in effect becomes a standardized follow notification. This works well for Google+ insofar as it quickly ramps up not just the user base, but also the activity of circling, and the connectedness of members.
Member connectedness is essential to any feed-based system. For connectedness is the filter on feeds. It’s what initiates the subscription to member activity (posts).
What is perhaps unintended, howver, in Google+ Circles notifications is the follower phenomenon, as well as ambiguity about the transparency of Circles. The follower phenomenon suggests to me that Google+ aims to make use of social capital, influence, popularity, and other social effects of a user base differentiated by quantity (number of followers/connections). The ambiguity around Circles utility stems from the invisibility of Circles to anyone but their author: notifications do not state what Circle I have been added to by somebody; nor do members of a Circle know about each other.
Google+ may have opted instead to preserve the personal social utility of friend grouping that seems the most obvious benefit of Circles. In which case, Circle notifications are already introducing the popularity bias that’s intrinsic to a public social follower model.
Google+ may also have intended to make visible shared Circles available, in effect offering groups. In which case, it will be interesting to see how well this works with the openness of the present feed model.
Social technologies flatten social differences, providing access to people unencumbered by social boundaries and distances. To wit, Zuckerberg is Google+’s most followed user. Circles seems to have been designed to increase utility in a social networking world of easy access and flattened social hierarchy. But the reciprocity and mutuality of following/back that acts as a soft social norm in follower models commodifies relationships in the service of social capital, or popularity. So it will be interesting to see how the team navigates feature and design evolution, now that the floodgates are open on some social practices that to me, at least, seem possibly at cross-purposes.