Google+

I’ve just been invited to Google+, Google’s attempt at kicking Facebook off it’s throne. We’ll see whether that happens or not.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m not a Facebook user1. I never got into it, never liked it. Similarly I don’t expect to become a Google+ user — sure, I’ll poke around for a while to see what’s happening there.

But Google+ finally demonstrated to me why I don’t like these social networking sites. I hadn’t really managed to put my finger on it before.

Granted, there’s more than one reason. I can easily point to Facebook’s handling of private data as one big issue, and run down a long list of other, similar issues that put me off using it. But those reasons aren’t at the core of my dislike; they function more like afterthoughts, rationalisations of my dislike.

At the core of my dislike, then, lies a simple if brutal truth: as much as I might like people and find them interesting, that does not translate into finding everything they post interesting. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting things these people have to say, but it’s a fallacy to assume that I would automatically find everything they say fascinating.

The fallacy is somewhat demonstrated by the Twitter Shitter phenomenon, but as amusing and insightful as the cartoon may be, it also distracts from the fact that people can post perfectly sensible stuff that I, personally, find incredibly boring.

Here’s where things become interesting: if I meet the exact same people in real life, I will consciously or — more likely — unconsciously steer conversations with them away from topics I find uninteresting, and towards topics I enjoy. By interacting with people, I will, therefore, filter out quite efficiently what doesn’t interest me.

That doesn’t work with everyone, of course. Some people are so intent on broadcasting their opinions that they do not take in conversation hints. We’ve all met those people.

And, sometimes, we all become those people when we’re on topics that fascinate us particularly intently. There is no shame in intense fascination, and therefore no reason to blame people for it. But in a conversation we can easily and kindly signal to each other when a conversation topic isn’t really up our street.

This mechanism is simply lacking in social networking sites. It turns every single one of us into eternal, unremitting broadcasters of stuff people will not care about.

And people will not care about stuff we say. There’s no “maybe” about it; probability simply reduces the possibility that someone might be interested in every word I’m writing to near-zero.

Some social networking websites may allow you to vote on posts, and thereby express interest. Careful posters may well take note of such votes, and restrict their posts to topics most of their followers find interesting. Given the right tools2, very careful posters may even selectively post to groups of followers they know are generally interested in a particular topic.

Nobody3 is that careful.

I posit that the reason for this lack of care lies in the fact that such feedback mechanisms, if they exist, are far too disconnected from the event of posting to register easily. That is, too much time passes between posting an update, and receiving feedback to the post. Contrast that to real-life conversations, where feedback is not only immediate, but can actually overlap with the posting, in the sense that someone can roll their eyes at me even before I finish a sentence.

By moving away from real-time interactions, then, we disable the regulating mechanism by which we signal interest in topics.

  1. I have an account, but use it for work only — and by that I mean spamming my wall with inane, computer-generated messages. Don’t bother finding me; I never read updates, and I never post anything interesting. []
  2. Circles in Google+, groups in Facebook []
  3. I expect exceptions to this rule, but haven’t met them yet. []