Privacy on Google+ Part 1: Circles

By far the biggest difference between Facebook and Google+ in terms of privacy promises to be Google+ Circles. In this post I’ll describe the first login experience on Google+, and I will focus on my first impressions of Google+ Circles, sticking mainly to the privacy aspects of Circles.

The first time you log into Google+ you are greeted with a Welcome screen (I’ve cropped the right hand section of the screenshot to protect the privacy of my contacts who were “suggested” for inclusion in my Circles by Google):

Google+ Welcome Screen

Google+ Welcome Screen

At the top of the screen you see quick links for (from left to right) “Home”, “Photos”, “Profile”, and “Circles” respectively. Clicking on one of these takes you to the corresponding interface within Google+. In the center of the screen are three links that take you to brief videos (I featured them in my last post) outlining the three major features of Google+: Circles, Hangouts and Sparks.

Since this post focuses on Circles, here’s a brief overview of the feature. In real life, you know a lot of people. Some of them are your friends, some are your colleagues, some are your classmates, some are relatives, and so on. The point is that there are a lot of people and they all fit into different aspects of your personal or professional life.

Things get complicated online, where you might also have/want “followers”, and where you also want to “follow” people that you don’t really know, those people who are interested in what you say “publicly” (or hyperpublicly), or vice versa. When you have a conversation with your friends, you don’t necessarily want your colleagues to overhear it, or your extended relatives, or your followers. In other words, you might want to have some privacy online that maps nicely onto the kinds of privacy expectations you have in the real world (these are, after all, real world people reading your online posts, and the repercussions of online speech can be more damaging because of the hyperpublicity of online speech compared to real-world speech).

Google+ Circles are meant to provide more of the kind of privacy that you currently have in real life, online.

One of the first things that struck me, from a privacy perspective, was the inclusion of the “Streams” along the left side of the Welcome screen. There are four preconfigured streams–Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following–each meant to function a lot like a Facebook “Wall”. The most notable difference when comparing Streams to your Facebook Wall, however, is that each Google+ Stream corresponds to one of your Circles. Click on a Stream and you get a running list of updates from the people in that Circle.

Google+ Streams with Acquaintances highlighted

I wanted to check out how the Google+ Circles feature looked right out of the box, so I clicked on the “Circles” link at the top of the Welcome Screen in order to go to the Circles interface. The Circles interface allows you to organize your Google+ Circles, which means creating new Google+ Circles, and adding/removing contacts to your existing Circles. You can add to your Circles from contacts who are already on Google+, search for new contacts from Yahoo! or Hotmail, invite people from your contact list who are not yet on Google+–all the hooks you’d expect from a social networking site.

To better understand the privacy significance or Google+ Circles, notice how Google describes the “Friends” Circle in the hover text:

Your Friends are, “Your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.” Compare that to your Facebook “Friends”, who are all of the people you ever friended on Facebook, including your old high school buds, your teachers, your parents, your colleagues, most of whom you don’t care to share ALL your information with.

Google+ allows you to place your real friends on one Circle, your Family in another (described as “Your close and extended family, with as many or as few in-laws as you want”), your Acquaintances in another (described as “A good place to stick people that you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to”), and those people that you “follow” in yet another (described as “People you don’t know personally but whose posts you find interesting”).

Of course you can also create your own Circles, for the poker gang, the knitting club, or what have you. Each Circle gets its own social space, much like your real life.

I decided to add a couple of (real) friends to my Friend Circle to see how it worked. Before adding the contact Google+ notified me of how I could expect Google+ to behave:

Now, I have to admit how much I like this little feature. Google+ informs me that my contacts will never be able to see which Circle I’ve added them to (or switched them to). This feature will undoubtedly capture the hearts and minds of high school students everywhere, whose daily ins and outs with their ever changing groups of friends will spark a flurry of “circling”. (Predicting the Future: I suspect that in six month to a year we will be hearing about how “circling” has become a new form of online status, and bullying.)

That’s HUGE from a privacy perspective!

In real life, nobody but you gets to know where the people in your life stand in relation to one another, unless you choose to tell them yourself. Facebook offers you the binary ability to “friend” someone or not. Sure, you can silently ignore them, but often times you would rather accept the friend request, then stick them in a “circle” that segregates the kind of information that they will have access to…just like real life.

Google+ Circles allow you to do that. No need to ignore people, or to curtail your use of Facebook because you have suddenly come to the realization that you have friended too many colleagues and can’t really talk about the party you went to the night before. And no need to send out awkward “unfriending” explanations to those people who contact you asking “why can’t I see you on Facebook any more?” “Oh, sorry, I’ve decided to clean up my online life and you didn’t make the cut. See you at the company BBQ?”

By adding these little notifications Google has designed Google+ with the users’ values in mind. Google+ tells you up front that you are making a choice by adding a contact to, say your Friend Circle, and lets you know that you can change the behaviour of the software if you would like to (removing them from visibility in your public profile), a feature that Facebook deliberately, and infamously, hid from the user.

I decided to add a Circle called “Academic”. I thought it might be useful to have a circle dedicated to people I know from the university setting, but who I don’t necessarily hang out with otherwise.

I also tried to add a (real) friend to my Academic Circle because I know he’s interested in some of the work I do and might want to receive posts related to my work (Presumptuous? Maybe. But he is still in my Friend Circle.)

And here is another great feature of Google+, you can add your contacts to more than one Circle! Again, just as in real life, my friends can also be my colleagues if I decide that that’s how they feature in real life.

After setting up my Circles I clicked back to my Home page to check it out. Now I was able to see the Streams populated with information from my Circles. As I clicked on my Streams the information in the main part of the screen changed to reveal the various posts from the people in that Circles. In addition my “Academic” Stream was visible in the list of streams.

I decided to try to “share” a photo that one of my friends had posted to his stream (which stream? I don’t know! nor should I), and I was given another opportunity to consider the privacy aspects of my online actions:

I really can’t say enough about this feature. It’s really a move in the right direction as it reminds the user that they are about to make an important choice about who to share the photo with, and that the person who originally posted the photo was interested in limiting the audience of that post. This kind of design choice fits very well as an example of value sensitive design (see my other posts on the topic), in which designers take into account the impact that features of a design can have on users’ values, such as privacy, freedom, etc. By prompting the user and reminding them how the software behaves, the user is able to learn how to use the software in a way that respects his or her pre-existing value expectations.

After clicking on “Okay, got it!” I was able to choose which circles to share the photo with. I chose to limit it to my friends, who I trust implicitly. I also felt comfortable about sharing the picture because I knew it didn’t contain any of my friend’s personal information (unlike the many, many pictures I get access to on Facebook that I probably shouldn’t have access to, and definitely don’t want access to).

As if that isn’t enough, Google+ lets you disable sharing on your posts. That means that once you have posted something, you can make so that others can’t share it. Fantastic privacy feature as it prevents things from going viral if you don’t want them to (once again, high school students should love this).

My initial impression of Google+ Circles is that they are a fantastic, extremely useful feature. Allowing the user to control who sees what information online is a huge step in the right direction where privacy is concerned. It makes a social networking tool function like a useful communication hub ought to. I have a lot of contacts in my life, most of whom Id like to share information with, but few of whom I’d like to share ALL of my information with. Facebook failed miserably in designing this basic privacy consideration into its interface, and Google+ stands to gain from Facebook’s insistence that isers don’t care about privacy.

There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered. One of my unanswered questions is “What happens when I move someone from one circle to another? Can they still see all the posts that I had previously given them access to by virtue of being in one circle, or do they immediately lose access to those posts? And I’m sure Google+ will raise privacy issues of its own. But for the time being, I am very excited about the privacy aspects of Google+ Circles, and I stand by my initial claim that Facebook ought to be worried about going the way of the MySpace, all because of privacy.



5 thoughts on “Privacy on Google+ Part 1: Circles

  1. Facebook has the same features… it is called "lists". You put your "friends" in various lists. You can set privacy settings by lists and also share to certain people or lists… click on the little down arrow next to the "lock" icon the next time you share on facebook. The big difference is Facebook doesn't emphasize lists the way G+ does with Circles.

    1. Hi Bob,
      First of all, thanks for reading, and I really appreciate the comment. You raise a very important point, one that I have been planning to write about. So here's a preview…

      You are right that Facebook has a similar feature, but I would emphasize that Lists and Circles are NOT the "same" features. The difference is in the way the features are implemented on the two sites. Facebook lists are not meant to function as the default means of communicating information on Facebook. In fact, they make lists optional to the point that you would have to do some serious digging in order to both figure out how to use lists, and also to use them when posting on FB (it takes several clicks to get to the point where a post is filtered by list). Again, lists are in no way meant to be the default way of communicating on FB. They bury the lists feature as a means of discouraging its use.

      On the flipside, Google doesn't allow you to communicate your information without making explicit choices about who to share that information with. You also can't "friend" anyone without making a similar choice. The shift in emphasis makes all the difference. Facebook and Google designers know that the vast majority of users of any technology use it with the default settings intact–major lawsuits (over IE as a default browser, for example) have been fought over the use of defaults as a way of "encouraging" a particular use of technology. By setting the default behaviour of Google+ to force a choice of who to communicate to, and how to characterize new Google+ contacts, Google+ scores huge points in terms of their respect for privacy.

      I would go as far as to say that by burying the lists feature and making it an opt-in use of the technology, Facebook can't claim to have put together an architecture that has the same features as Google+ Circles. The choice of a default set of behaviour makes them vastly different features.

      1. Also, the Lists feature on Facebook has always suffered from bugs. Periodically some bugs get fixed and new ones introduced to replace them. Currently, for example, if you have more than a dozen or so lists you can’t access some of them from the Event Invite screen. And adding existing friends to Lists has always been incredibly slow and awkward. Probably these things never get fixed because the implementation of Lists is so buried that few people know about them or have bothered to make as much use of it as I have tried to (precisely in order to achieve the kind of thing that G+’s circles make easy). I didn’t even know it was possible to share to a List from the padlock dropdown – it’s certainly not obvious that you can do so!

  2. Nice post. Thanks so much and very helpful. I tweeted it out this morning at @PrivacyCamp

    Shaun Dakin
    Founder @PrivacyCamp
    Founder #PrivChat on Twitter (every Tuesday at Noon ET)

  3. very helpful. thanks 🙂 in particular I'd be wondering about how to control stuff being shared to your circle not going further so useful to know about the option to disable sharing

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