Jul 112011

Google+’s Circles feature to organize your contacts into distinct groups is generating a lot of discussion about how to best use this new tool.  Some people are exited to finally have a degree of privacy and publishing control not found in Twitter, Facebook or other social sites. But is this privacy control or merely “privacy theater”, a bunch of important-looking knobs that instill confidence but are ineffective against plain old human error?

As new G+’ers, I imagine many of us scurry about busily categorizing or tagging these people we know, or sort of know, or might know but can’t quite remember, or don’t know at all.  I find myself falling into a pattern of creating circles by workplace, school, or other “where I met them” sort of context.  Pretty soon you’re looking at a dozen different circles.

It’s all neat and tidy (sort of), but my realization now is: When am I going to use these carefully crafted circles? I’m having difficulty imagining a situation where I’d post something only to my Borland colleagues and have reason not to post it to my Microsoft colleagues or for that matter to the general public.

Am I going to become my own Amazon Turk and presort my outgoing posts, sending them only to the people I think would be interested?  Not likely. I know they don’t really read my posts anyway.

On a different level, there is the argument that people who post are desiring to be heard.  So why restrict the scope of your audience by only posting to a circle of contacts?

One communication vector G+ Circles could easily replace is topic oriented or regional mailing lists.  We have a few of these here in the Santa Cruz Mountains to share information p2p about wildfires, road closures, storm damage, local merchants and events.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine a publicly listed circle that people could attach themselves to (inverse of the current Circles paradigm) that provides a service similar to the email mailing list, but without all the subscribe/unsubscribe headaches.

One tidbit that new G+’ers seem to get excited about is the potential to use these Circles to limit distribution of some of their posts, in the sense of having private conversations. This really bugs me, because this is how we lull ourselves into using good tools for the wrong job.  It’s a bad idea to approach Google+ with privacy in mind.  It’s a microblogging publishing platform.  It may have some new knobs to publish to a group slightly smaller than 7 billion people, but don’t kid yourself into thinking limited distribution is privacy.

There is certainly a noble case for being able to post certain personal or sensitive items only to immediate family, (and for posting something *not* to immediate family!).  I can appreciate that argument.  Really, I can – it would be nice to be able to post vacation updates to a select group of family and friends  without telling the whole world that our home is empty and ready to be burgled. I get that.

As appealing as that scenario is, it still makes me uneasy. It’s tempting, but it does not silence the little voice in my head reminding me of the online mantra I learned firsthand at an early age:

If it’s sensitive enough that you wouldn’t want some individual or group to find out about what you said, don’t post it.  Anywhere. Period.

The Google Circles technology may be flawless – or not.  There are plenty of ways for technology to “leak” the wrong bits in the wrong direction, but technology isn’t our greatest or most common mode of failure.  That honor goes to the lump at the organic side of the human/machine interface who is still perfectly capable of screwing things up big time by posting the wrong thing to the wrong group.  Sometimes that lump is me.  Sometimes it’s a friend with whom I’ve shared or entrusted a little bit too much detail. And sometimes the lump posting the wrong stuff to the wrong place is just a congressman from New York.

Having streams of public and private conversations in the same place definitely does not help. We’ve all seen the email follow-up snarky remark that went to “Reply All” instead of “Reply to Sender” and cringed. Or pasted that rude (but hilarious) URL into the wrong IM window. (yikes)

Google Circles is no better and no worse.  Google Circles makes it easy for you to select which subgroup you want to post to, but everyone in that subgroup has the ability to share your post further, outside your control.  Google+ even reminds you of this with a little popup text to be respectful of the original poster’s intent when you share someone else’s limited distribution post.  Yes, you can disable resharing of your posts on G+, but that doesn’t prevent copy & paste or screenshots from helping your post jump the privacy fence.

If you believe there is some truth to the notion that information is hard to keep contained, then you have to accept that anything you post has the potential to “get out” and be visible to a much larger audience than you intended. The simplest way to deal with that reality is to treat everything you post as eventually becoming public information.

Thus far, my work to carefully sort and tag my contacts into their soothing blue pigeonholes is turning out to be all for naught. The blue circles float there largely unused because just about anything I would post anywhere I would post as public, not to any particular circle. Maybe I should start a mailing list…