Circles vs Friend Lists

Why I don’t think Circles is Google+’s killer social feature

I firmly believe that if any company can dethrone Facebook, that company is Google. But from what I’ve seen of Google+ so far, I can’t quite imagine a MySpace-style emigration happening just yet.

I’ve recently been asking Google+ fans to give me a good reason to use it. By far the most popular answer to my question is that it provides better privacy and filtering options.

Circles is great. It’s about as simple to use as it can be, but I don’t believe it’s anything like a game-changer.

Facebook already has friend lists

In terms of who you share with, Facebook has had ‘friend lists’ for some time. Not only does Facebook have these, but it also allows ad hoc exclusions for individual posts. I can share something to my ‘Family’ list, but exclude Mum if I choose to. As far as I can see, G+ doesn’t support this. Of course Google can add it in future, but my point is that the Circles concept is not a USP; it’s just centre-stage and has a better UI.

Nobody knows about friend lists anyway

Facebook friend lists appear to be a little-known, or at least little-used feature. This is possibly due to being somewhat hidden, and this in turn is possibly because Facebook don’t really like you to be particularly private.

Facebook have already reacted to G+ by surfacing these features through an improved UI. If they think they’re likely to lose users to G+ on account of Circles then they can bring Friend Lists into greater prominence. They’re in a strong position to do so; they already have the infrastructure and I doubt that most of their audience even know about G+ yet.

It’s complicated

I’ve used lists a lot. I have lists of people who live near me, lists of my closest friends, list of people I have professional connections with; even lists of people I follow on Twitter. Managing these lists is not just time consuming, but it’s much more complicated that it sounds. As soon as you opt to conduct yourself in this way you start seeing how difficult it really is.

Life is more complicated than putting people into neat little pigeon holes with labels on them. Have you ever tried to throw a party and only invite people from a certain corner of your life? There’s always a guest you have to invite for ‘political’ reasons, or a guest who won’t come unless some other person is there; or isn’t there. You probably like some of your work colleagues while thoroughly disliking others. It’s never as straight-forward as you’d hoped.

And then there’s the great ‘offline’ loophole. Maybe I want to share something with just the boys, but my brother is checking Facebook while sat next to his wife. All the privacy settings in the world can’t get around that.

So, I gave up. I only maintain a single list nowadays.

If something really needs to be hidden from people then you probably shouldn’t be writing it on the Internet anyway. (not that I take my own advice).

But Circles filters your Stream too.

This is a good feature. I prefer it to Facebook’s obscure Edgerank algorithm, or whatever mysterious methods they’re currently using to filter your News Feed. References to ‘top stories’  (or ‘highlights’ as they seemed to be called last week), or News Feed vs Most Recent feeds – it’s all rather confusing and I think Facebook need to sort it out.

The point is that they can sort it out. If Facebook users start adopting friend lists in greater numbers, then perhaps Facebook will support lists in the News Feed settings. Perhaps they’ll make these settings more prominent too, as they’re currently hidden at the bottom of an infinitely scrolling page, such that you have to hit the ‘End’ key to reach it.

All of this is solvable by Facebook, and what’s more they can learn from what the early adopters say about G+ before the majority of their user base are even aware that it exists.

Do people even want privacy?


This is the ultimate question in my mind. Social networks offer privacy features because enough of us demand them, but I’m not convinced that privacy is so important to the average Facebook user that they’d jump ship to improve it. If Facebook friend list adoption doesn’t increase after some UI changes, then perhaps it’ll be because people aren’t that interested in the feature, or have found it as complex as I have. Even if people say they want this functionality, will they actually use it?

I’d like to eat my own words on this front, but I see little evidence that orthodox privacy concerns are of much importance to ordinary users. Perhaps Google would do well to observe how teenagers appropriate their own privacy techniques regardless of the tools designed for them by adults.

Circles isn’t a killer feature

It’s not like Google aren’t innovative. In addition to their wide range of indispensable services, they will eventually have a the browser, the mobile and maybe even the desktop sewn up. But a social hub that ties all of this together is going to need a killer USP to start a Facebook exodus, and I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.

Whether Circles is better than Facebook’s privacy model or not, I think Google need to get better at coming up with social features we actually want, even before we know it ourselves. This is one of Facebook’s great strengths and I’m not sure Google are too great at it.