Friday, July 8, 2011

Yishan Wong Only Understands "Social"

Yishan Wong doesn't like Google+. So far, I love Google+ (apart from the ugly snarl of punctuation it causes whenever I put it at the end of a sentence). Why doesn't he love it? For precisely the reasons I do. He begins his argument by noting that while there is a popular conception among media talking heads and writers that Facebook is pushing users toward less and less privacy, this isn't really the case:
I dispelled this myth in [my anonymous answer at] Social Networks: Since Facebook has been so aggressive in pushing users to be more public, is there now a market opportunity for a player that resembles what Facebook once was and intensely focuses on preserving intimacy and privacy?, explaining that Facebook would find it far easier to keep things private for users, but that it has observed user behavior that indicated an increasing desire for more public information sharing. The user "demands" for more privacy come from a vocal minority who oppose both Facebook's actions as much as they do the general consensus of the casual internet user who does not think much about the public/private dichotomy, but rather thinks in terms of histrionics, narcissism, exhibitionism, and voyeurism.
I actually think Wong is right about this. Facebook users want to overshare. The history of the Internet is, in many ways, the history of our need to display ourselves as flagrantly as possible, increasingly enabled by sophisticated technologies. GeoCities pages were Facebook without a guaranteed way of harassing your friends and family (your updates didn't show up on anybody's feed; you had to e-mail them if you wanted them to know about it, which was aggressive and usually rude). 

Wong also argues that Facebook actually has all of the same functionality as Google+ circles, but doesn't make it obvious because people don't like using it -- they find it too difficult. He's right about this as well, but neglects the possibility that circles are more intuitive and user-friendly, which they definitely are. Filtering who sees what in Facebook is possible, but a gigantic pain in the ass, so I rarely bother.

So far Wong and I see the same facts, but we evaluate them differently, which is a good place to be in a disagreement. But then he begins to genuinely misunderstand things:
On Google+, people whom you have not friended can comment on your public posts. 
At first blush, this seems reasonable because it copies from the Twitter model of public tweets and how anyone can @-reply to someone's public tweet. In fact, it's not.

On Twitter, an @-reply remains in your own tweetstream, and a user has to click into a particular display (e.g. see all @-mentions). On Google+, the display of the reply mirrors the UI of Facebook rather than Twitter, essentially injecting a stranger's reply into a conversation thread nominally between you and your friends. On Facebook, even when you make a post at the "Everyone" (public) privacy level, it is still essentially intended as a broadcast to your friends, or at least people with whom you are acquainted. People who have friended you but whom you have not friended back are prevented from commenting on your posts. This is obviously reasonable; you haven't stated that you wanted to be connected to them in any way, so why should they be allowed to participate in your conversations? Yet Google+ violates this by not only allowing but, through the design of the UI, encouraging and sanctioning this behavior as though there were nothing odd about it.
This is just weird. He's misunderstanding an intentional feature as a problem. In Google+, public sharing is only the default on your first post -- once you tell it which circles you want to see your updates, it remembers that and assumes you would like to share with those circles (and only those circles) next time you post as well. Public sharing is a choice, in other words, and it's a choice you'll only make under the specific circumstance that you want to allow people you haven't added to your circles to see and comment on what you're sharing.

And indeed, there's nothing strange about this. Imagine if you were talking to some friends at a party. You would naturally form a sort of circle so that you could see each other's faces and hear each other's voices, as well as symbolically excluding other party guests who were, nonetheless, not a part of your literal circle. You would speak at a lower volume level so that other people were less likely to hear you, and you would (hopefully) take turns, listening as well as speaking. If you were to then decide to address the entire party, including people you wouldn't count as friends, you would presumably dissolve or step outside your circle and speak a bit louder -- and then wait to see if someone wanted to say something back. That's a normal social interaction. It's well understood that you don't speak to people unless you're willing to listen to what they want to say back, except in special situations like a public speech or performance (where Q&As or informal discussions after the fact are still quite common).

What we see here is the root of the problem: Wong understands "social" quite well, but he doesn't understand actual social interactions. He offers an example of two people joining public + threads he started in order to criticize his arguments, and asserts that this is socially unacceptable. But why, exactly, would that be? Why does Wong need people to hear him without talking back? My best guess: Wong is a rude, self-absorbed person. In one example, he's actually addressing the strangers who are following him, and then he gets angry when they respond! That's mystifying behavior.

Wong makes himself clear when he writes, "People actually want to share more information in public, mostly because they like to talk about themselves." In other words, Wong believes that people want to talk about themselves all day long without ever having to listen to anything anyone else wants to say. And you know what? Wong is right. But that's not how normal social interactions are supposed to work. In practice, talking with other people is usually a way of talking about ourselves. But we're expected to at least pretend to listen, with the hope that occasionally real human interactions will occur. 

Google+ replicates the social norm that you don't talk to people who you don't want to hear from by making communication mutual: excluding me from your updates is so easy that if you don't do it, I feel not only able to comment but invited to do so. This reduces the stress of using the service tremendously. There are two reasons I hate Facebook:

1) People are using it to "network" with me. As I've become better known in the publishing community as a writer but especially as an editor (not that I'm any hot shit), many writers I know less than nothing about have chosen to add me as friends. Why? I hesitate to speculate, but let's just say it often happens on the same day they submit a story or poem to one of the publications I edit. As a result, I often don't know if someone who's friending me on Facebook actually wants to have social interactions, or only wants to use me as an avenue for self-promotion.

2) Relatedly, my Facebook feed is about 90% spam. I don't mind when my actual friends who actually like interacting with me promote their stories, presses, publications, accomplishments, and etc. because I like those people and I want them to succeed. But I've completely lost patience with the sort of "friend" who regularly sends me invites to events I obviously can't attend (because they're in New York, and I'm in Iowa). I have no interest in being blasted with self-promotional links who only "friended" me in the first place because they wanted to blast me with said links.

For these reasons, I have about half or maybe even the majority of my Facebook friends set to "ignore" at this point. This is the only way I can filter out the spam without offending people by refusing their friend requests. 

Google+ solves these problems. If you want to follow a famous or accomplished person, or someone who isn't "important" but whom you admire, you can choose to add them to your following circle and see their public posts. They, meanwhile, get to spam anyone who adds them to that circle guilt-free; but at a cost: if you talk to the public, the public gets to talk back. This encourages smarter, more careful, more engaged-self promotion and sharing. And those of us who mutually add each other to our circles will have more intimate, more engaged interactions for the same reason. The quality of conversation on Google+ is already clearly higher than that of Facebook for this reason.

Wong argues that most people are like him -- they want to talk more than they listen, want to share without opening themselves to comment and response. I think he's probably right. I hope those people stay off of Google+, or learn to change their behaviors. If people like Wong don't use Google+, that'll be a feature, not a bug. I'm switching over as much as possible precisely to get away from him and his ilk.

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