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Where Google+, Facebook, and Twitter Fall Down


I’ve been thinking about Google+, the new social networking service from Google, for some time now, but only just now did my thoughts crystallize about where it fails, right along with all other social networking services.

Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, Google+ is extremely interesting, since Google had the examples of Facebook and Twitter (and numerous other less-successful social networking services) to learn from. Among Google+’s major wins:

  • Like Twitter, but unlike Facebook, following is asymmetric. You can follow me, but I don’t have to follow you back. This is an important concept, and one of the major reason I never read Facebook.

  • Like Facebook, but unlike Twitter, Google+ links comments on a post to the post, enabling a coherent linear discussion. There’s nothing more irritating on Twitter than coming into the middle of a conversation and being unable to figure out how it started.

  • Unlike either Facebook or Twitter, Google+ introduces the concept of “circles” which are groups of people whose posts you can read together and, more interestingly, to whom you can target your own posts. So, if you have a Family circle, you can see everything your family members are talking about in a single stream, and you can post something that only people in that circle will see. (Both Facebook and Twitter have the concept of lists, but they’re useful only for focusing on what to read, and do nothing for limiting what you post.)

There is more to Google+, including easy adding of photos and videos to posts, automatic preview of links like Facebook, live “hangouts” in which a group of people can interact in real time with video, and “sparks” for pulling together posts on particular topics. It has a decent mobile app for iOS, and since Google has been focusing on Google+ rather significantly (killing Google Buzz in the process), it’s easy to view notifications and create posts from the navigation bar in any Google site. Google even added organization pages, which I’ve created for both TidBITS and Take Control, though I’m not
entirely sure how we’ll use them yet.

But here’s the problem. Although the circles in Google+ would appear to be the answer to the problem suffered by both Twitter and Facebook, they aren’t, and I’d argue that’s because all of these companies fail to understand – or at least fail to have encapsulated – how groups of people interact in the real world.

Social Networking or Community Networking? — I realize I’m grossly overgeneralizing here, but isn’t it a little telling that social networking services were created by geeks, the kind of people who aren’t stereotypically known for being great in social situations? For a long time, I fell squarely into this group, and although repetition and confidence have made social situations easier for me, even now, I’m not wildly comfortable meeting new people or finding myself in completely unfamiliar groups. I’ve experienced both the desire to lurk in the corner and the sense that I’m babbling about geeky topics that others in the conversation don’t understand at all.

Seen in this light, a lot of the oddities of social networking services make more sense. The almost competitive desire to have lots of “friends,” the ease of following people silently and nearly anonymously on Twitter and Google+, the popularity of Twitter’s micro-blogging approach as a way to express yourself on any topic you wish – they’re all ways of reducing the kind of social discomfort that many people feel when thrown into groups. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a bad thing.

But what social networking services seldom map well is how real-world groups interact. There’s no telling exactly why this is – perhaps the designers simply don’t participate in real-world groups all that much, or they don’t understand what it is that makes real-world groups succeed or fail.

I won’t pretend to be an expert in this field, but outside of the technology world, I spend a lot of time in group situations. I run daily with the High Noon Athletic Club; I participate in informally organized weekend runs; I attend numerous races, including the 5-race Pete Glavin Upstate New York Cross Country Series that brings together runners from all over the state. Outside the running world, I’ve been involved with the local community center, and there are an ever-increasing number of parent groups associated with Tristan’s after-school activities. This isn’t to imply I’m special in any way (or at least I hope not), but what I’ve noticed in all these situations is that the key aspect of interacting in real-world groups is shared

Think about shared context for a moment. By definition it must be shared among all members of the group, and people who don’t share it create tension. In my running groups, the shared context is running, so discussions will involve recent races, upcoming races, injuries, training approaches, equipment opinions, and more. But in a group of runners, I won’t blather on about DRM, or iCloud, or our latest ebooks, and I expect others in the group to restrict their topics equivalently.

But none of the major social networking services have any way of creating shared context, with the exception of Facebook’s groups. Interestingly, shared context can happen organically, as we’ve discovered on Twitter. Since many of our far-flung Mac colleagues and loyal TidBITS readers joined Twitter at roughly the same point, the people who I’ve ended up following and who follow me generally share the context of Apple and the technology world. That’s not to say that people never stray outside that context, but even when I post about other topics, I do so with that audience in mind.

In fact, there’s an easy example of online services that instantiate shared context – mailing lists. (I suspect the same may be true of other long-standing Internet services like Usenet newsgroups, IRC channels, and multi-player environments like MUDs and MOOs, but I haven’t used any of them since I stopped updating “Internet Starter Kit for Macintosh.”) At least here in Ithaca, mailing lists are the online representation of real-world groups, although a number of long-running lists have evolved to have substantially different membership than the real-world groups around which they formed.

As I mentioned before, Facebook groups can also provide shared context, and I almost forgot about them despite the fact that I have in the past created groups for several of my running clubs. But those groups – despite being intended to make the groups more attractive to a younger audience that’s more comfortable with Facebook than email – have been complete flops. There’s no discussion, no chatter, basically no traffic at all.

Early on in any social networking service’s life, the only shared context necessary is membership in the service. This isn’t new at all – the long-running Netter’s Dinner at Macworld Expo had as its shared context the ability to connect to the Internet. But over time, that group’s shared context has evolved from being on the Internet (which is true of everyone now) to having previously attended the dinner or coming with someone who has. It’s not required, but the fact that very few new people ever come says to me that newcomers find the lack of shared context too high of a barrier to hurdle.

How Circles Fail

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