The sociological breakthrough of Google+

My last Facebook update said:

Too busy playing on Google+ to check FB

And that was five days ago.

The truth is that I’ve long been too busy doing anything to check Facebook. I’ve secretly, and increasingly, loathed Facebook since I joined it, which was relatively early (beginning of 2007, I believe), because my beat at The Economist back then was Silicon Valley, and it was simply part of my job to be fiddling with stuff like this. (I’m not the only one loathing FB, apparently.)

Ah, 2007. That seems like a distant era now. I still recall meeting Mark Zuckerberg, who was not yet used to meeting anybody, much less the heads of state and glitterati that surround him now, and who was awkward even by the standards of Silicon Valley’s skewed autism spectrum. (Here is the profile I wrote about him soon after that meeting.)

So anyway, I was and remained “on Facebook”, the way one just is. How could I not be? But I was almost entirely passive (observing incoming updates without sending outgoing ones). And I was proud of my wife, who is savvy in such matters and simply said ‘I’ll sit this one out’. She never signed up.

Why this skepticism?

Because Facebook is fundamentally (=unalterably) indiscreet.

And it is fundamentally indiscreet because it is architecturally indiscrete. (Forgive me that word play.) Meaning: you cannot distinguish easily between different degrees of intimacy among the people in your social graph. The various relationships are not discrete, not separate.

Mark’s vision (as he told it to me back then, and as I described it in my early profile) was to be a “mapmaker” (like the heroic explorers of the Renaissance) of human connections. To him that was an algorithmic challenge. I always knew that his premise was unsound sociologically.

Tell me: In real life, how often do you walk up to somebody and request to be “friends”, then begin “sharing” pictures of your naked baby?

How wonderfully warm and fuzzy do you feel when somebody (oh yes, wasn’t he on my soccer team 30 years ago? Or perhaps I vomited on him at that keg party in 1989?) stops you on the street, asks to be “friends”, then shares his baby pictures with you?

Mark has been asking us all to do exactly this sort of thing. I thought it was strange back then, and I said so in our pages. (The picture at the top of this post is from that old piece.) But — did I mention? — that was in 2007. A different era, as I said.

Facebook then put us all on a roller coaster of “privacy” policies. (We’ve discussed some of them on this blog.) It got more and more confusing, and simultaneously boring. Who wants to put in the time to learn what Mark is up to now?

Plus: the page started to look like Times Square in the 1970s. (Remember, aesthetics really, really matter to me.)

So now we have Google+. It has not even officially been launched yet, but seems to have passed 18 million users today. We all thought that sheer fatigue would keep all of us from filling out yet another profile. But lo, everyone I know is already there, and we’re playing happily. Even my wife is trying it out.

Google+’s crucial innovation (among many others existing or planned) is Circles. You can make as many of them as you like. They can contain 1 person, 2 people, the Dunbar number, or the entire web. Because there are things you want to share with just one person, or with 2, or with lots, or with everybody (as on WordPress).

Ergo: Discrete → discreet

You also don’t have to ask anybody to be your “friend”. Nor do you have to reply to anybody’s “friend request”. You simple put people into the discrete/discreet spheres they already inhabit in your life.

Quite a few of us — Nick Bilton at the NYT, for example — seem to be optimistic that this is the beginning of a good trajectory. (Nothing new should be evaluated by what it is today. What matters is what it will become tomorrow.)

Now, if you had asked me which company I considered least likely to come up with such a sociologically simple and elegant solution, I might well have answered: Google.

Its founders and honchos worship algorithms more than Mark Zuckerberg does. (I used to exploit this geekiness as “color” in my profiles of Google from that era.) Google then seemed to live down to our worst fears by making several seriously awkward attempts at “social” (called Buzz and Wave and so forth).

But these calamities seem to have been blessings. Google seems to have been humbled into honesty and introspection. It then seems to have done the unthinkable and consulted not only engineers but … sociologists (yuck). And now it has come back with … this.

Facebook flashes your trench coat open

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook just “updated” its privacy settings, and I almost did not notice. That’s because I’m (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s nightmare: I don’t “share” anything on Facebook to begin with, so my Facebook profile contains little to be private about.

But some of those who do share things on Facebook “came close to killing [their] account this week”, as Danny Sullivan did, when they paid attention to the details of the change.

A year ago I predicted in our (The Economist‘s) sister publication, The World in 2009, that this brave new culture of “sharing” would cause discontent. Maybe that point is now nigh. For me personally, it arrived long ago.

Because I used to cover the internet in my previous beat at The Economist, I had to be one of the first to try new things like Facebook, and I usually was. But from the start I made a pact with myself:

  • No pictures of, or (indexable, Googlable) information about, my loved ones.
  • No names, birthdays, diaper photos etc.
  • No drive-by shootings (photo, video, status update) of third parties

In particular, my wife and children should, in effect, not be on the internet at all unless they themselves later choose to put themselves there. You may have noticed that their names do not appear on The Hannibal Blog, even though I share my ideas here quite liberally. Yes, you may know me very intimately by now in an intellectual way–as I feel I know some of you quite intimately through your comments even though I only see your pseudonym and avatar. But you do not know me biographically beyond what I choose to divulge. I practice Platonic sharing.

So why am I Mark’s nightmare? Because getting people to share all that other sort of stuff–the biographical and, in particular, the intimate bits–is his mission, his strategy, his imperative, as he himself already told me two and a half years ago, before he was famous.

(Ironically, that was one of the hardest interviews I ever conducted, because Mark, well, would not share anything. In conversation, I mean. He gives short, linear, monosyllabic answers. Getting him to open up offline is like getting blood out of a stone.)

To make people feel secure enough to share more, Facebook subsequently introduced increasingly complex (“granular” was Mark’s word) privacy settings. By fiddling around with dials and such, you could determine how public/private your photos, updates, contact info etc were.

I never bothered, because I hate fiddling and, well, I had made that pact, so I didn’t care. There was nothing to keep private.

But I watched, with curiosity verging on shock, what information I began to see, in my peripheral Facebook vision, about my Facebook contacts. If I may generalize: The men shared thoughts and opinions, intended to be public, and the women shared baby photos and such that used to be considered intimate. (The differences between men and women on Facebook go a lot further.) I occasionally felt like a voyeur, and became bashful. Surely I was not meant to see all of this? Or perhaps I was? Perhaps I just belong to a different era, such as Hannibal’s.

But, based on my conversation with Mark all those (internet) eons ago, I always knew that Facebook was a pair of scissors that would sooner or later cut. The two blades are these:

  • For Facebook to stay interesting to its users, Mark needs people to share ever more of this stuff.
  • For Facebook to stay interesting to Mark and his investors, he needs to start doing things with that information, things that go beyond just showing the information to your friends.

A lot of people will be cut by the “transition tool” that Facebook is now providing as part of its privacy changes. Danny in his post went through it, so read his analysis there. Just one hint: Online, everything is about the “default” option, because that is the one most people will use. You notice that the default setting in the “tool” for who may see most kinds of information is ….


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More primatology

The folks at 850 KOA, a Colorado news-radio channel, called me up this morning to chat more about friendship and human group size in the age of Facebook. Here is our conversation.

(If you’re just arriving, this is about a piece I wrote in The Economist called Primates on Facebook. I blogged about the back story here.)

Update: Cameron Marlow, whom I described as Facebook’s “in-house sociologist”, has now posted his back story with lots, lots more data and detail and analysis.

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Primates on Facebook

I got 500 friends on Facebook

I got 500 friends on Facebook

A lot of bloggers are picking up my piece in today’s issue of The Economist on the possible bio-sociological conclusions to be drawn from Facebook data. A few examples are here, here, here, here and here.

The point of the piece: to add a tiny bit to the research debates about human group size.

Just a few words on the backstory of this article: I got the idea in December while chatting to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO (“chief operating officer”) of Facebook. We were just shooting the breeze when I thought of the Dunbar Number, one of my favorite talking points, and a conceit that I’ve used before. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist, hypothesized that primates form groups to the extent that their brains can compute the many relationships among group members. I think what I like about it is the originality of extrapolating from the ratio of neocortex size to group size among other primates to Homo Sapiens.

Anyway, we all went off over the holidays, and when we came back from the break, Larry Yu at Facebook put me in touch with Cameron Marlow. He had got some complicated PhD title that amounted to, in his words, “computational sociology” and is now the “in-house sociologist” at Facebook. (Since Mr Crotchety and I think alike–great minds?–he serendipitously emailed me an article about the rise of computational social scientists that same week. If you don’t know Mr Crotchety, you haven’t been reading The Hannibal Blog enough.)

What I wanted from Facebook was numbers that might advance the debate on human group size. It was really difficult. Marlow and his team came back with one set of charts that I could not decipher without help. “Simpler“, I said, which will not surprise regular readers. Eventually, they produced a chart that I thought was simple enough.

Here it is: economist-median-network-size (Incomprehensibly, WordPress does not allow me to embed an PDF chart into my blog, so please click through.)

I like it. It shows three diverging lines: the blue for the number of people we track passively (by clicking on their profiles or status updates, say); the green for the number of people to whom we respond (by commenting on a status update, say) but who don’t respond back; and the red for the number of people with whom we communicate two-way (by chatting, emailing, exchanging wall posts, etc).

The conclusion: the more active or intimate the network, the smaller and more stable, no matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook. I wrote my piece around that chart.

To my surprise, my editor then took an extreme interest in gender differences. So I went back to Facebook and had Marlow produce another chart, this one: active-relationship-size-by-gender

It was still simple, but broke out the same information by gender. Yes, just as you thought, women are more social than men.

To my surprise, the editor didn’t go with any of the charts. What can you do? So I went back to Facebook to get actual numbers. (It was like getting blood out of a stone at this point.) And so we ended up putting those numbers in the text.

Long story short, the piece has no chart but it still gets the point across: No matter what technology you use, we still seem to interact with the same small number of people as ever before. Hence the rubric (subtitle):

Even online, the neocortex is the limit

Anyway, if you’re interested look at the charts and see if that gives you more ideas.
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