14 February 2011

What I expect from Google Me (2)

Better control over privacy and the news feed

Facebook runs on a very stiff, crude model of what people are like. It herds everybody — friends, co-workers, romantic partners, that guy who lived on your block but moved away after fifth grade — into the same big room. It smooshes together your work self and your home self, your past self and your present self, into a single generic extruded product. It suspends the natural process by which old friends fall away over time, allowing them to build up endlessly, producing the social equivalent of liver failure. On Facebook, there is one kind of relationship: friendship, and you have it with everybody. You’re friends with your spouse, and you’re friends with your plumber. Lev Grossman’s profile on Mark Zuckerberg for Time

Much has been said about the (in)ability of Facebook to model real-life human relationships or that they should allow unidirectional connections – the ‘follower’ model – like Twitter. Not to mention the convoluted and ever changing privacy settings. In my opinion, a system with three levels of privacy would be more flexible, while remaining relatively easy to manage:

  • The inner circle – friends: this would hold your real-life friends, people you trust and communicate with often. Naturally it will contain a small number of people, but they would have access to pretty much everything you do on the network: your real-time location, your current and future events, are allowed to tag you in photos and can see them, have access to your full contact details, can chat with you, add you to groups, etc. This will basically function like the early-days , a private network with people you actually know and want to actively keep in touch.

  • The outer circle – connections: containing more casual connections, people you worked with or members of the same club or gym, old friends you no longer keep in touch with, it should have tighter default privacy controls. People on this level can only see some of your contact details – no home address or phone numbers, maybe only one more generic email address, location restricted to city-level and events to free/busy indicators; if they tag you in photos you should be able to approve the tags first. And I wouldn’t mind an option to prevent them from inviting me to play games or use apps. This could become similar to LinkedIn or to the present-day Facebook, but without limits on the number of connections you can add.

  • The public realm. Here the two-way connection would be replaced by the follower model to create a network similar to or FriendFeed, where you could follow people with similar interests, publicly share links and status updates and comment on them.

The profile should also reflect the three privacy levels: display everything for friends, less information for connections and even more closed for the public; at this level users could also be allowed to replace their real name with a pseudonym.

Of course, this complicates the whole ‘add-a-friend’ process somewhat: first you follow someone, adding them to the public circle. If they follow you back, you both are automatically assigned to the outer circle. For the inner circle there should be a specific request that only comes into effect after both parties have confirmed it.

So how to post a status update in this system? I think the easiest way would be to have three check boxes for each of the circles, combined with a list for groups, similar to the status box in Google Buzz. This way you could post updates to all circles at once or create different privacy combos easily, e.g. private and to one of your groups. Updates directed only to your inner circle should be visible to strictly those members and sharing them along shouldn’t be allowed. The non-public content should only be sharable to groups with the same or stricter privacy: so if you share something to the outer circle, they wouldn’t be able to share it with their public circle, but only with their outer or inner circles.

From the other perspective, as consumers of updates, the news feed could use some improvements – or rather the way it prioritizes items. Facebook’s ranking approach is based on the premise that people we interact more often are more important. But this is not necessarily true, the same way it’s not true for people we email constantly in Gmail: some may be good friends, other just associates. And if some people don’t generate as many updates as others doesn’t mean we no longer want to see them. Personally I would prefer to have more control over the algorithm. The default should be to rank the close friends group highest, followed by the casual connections and with the ‘rest of the world’ last. On top of that, the user should be able to make some people more prominent in the stream. This would be a major step in dealing with the “social entropy”: as you make new friends, you can add them immediately to the most important sources, without waiting for the algorithm to pick up the change; while older contacts that have become out of touch can be easily downgraded.

The source of the update should also influence its importance in the stream. Many people asked for some kind of filtering by source in Twitter, to easily discard automated tweets, but that would probably deter major players that rely on these tools to auto-publish articles and support for the network would decline. Just like with groups of people, you should be able to tell the system that you want to prioritize photos and status updates, let’s say, but reduce the notifications about events, locations and new connections to a minimum. Or hide these sources altogether, unless they get likes or comments. Facebook allows you to hide individual apps, but it seems every week my friends discover new ‘distractions’ – so more noise for me. I think the proper solution would be to hide all updates generated by apps, except for the ones the user is actively using. There should be a notification when a connection starts to use an app; if you start using it as well, you will see updates from the app; if not, it will be hidden until you do.

Another shortcoming for me is the way Buzz pushes items to the top when they receive comments from people I don’t follow. This doesn’t help relevancy or noise; I just end up seeing the same update over and over again, even days or weeks after it was first posted. In most cases I don’t care about the general conversation, unless someone I trust reacts, in which case I could easily catch up by reading previous comments. So ideally an item should be pushed up only if a friend/connection/person I follow comments or likes it. I think FriendFeed used this model and I find it superior to what other networks offer. It would also have the advantage of limiting the visibility of spam comments, a recurring problem in ; they wouldn’t be pushed up in the stream, so there would hardly be any incentive for them.

And speaking of comments, don’t you hate it when Facebook shows you clever status updates or nice photos and you can’t comment or like them because of the privacy choices of the owner? One of the rules in the stream should definitely be “If I can see a piece of content, I can also like and comment on it”.

Ironically, I recently discovered that Facebook used to have granular controls over the news feed a few years back – before I got an account – allowing users to weight certain friends and story types more or less with a simple slider system. It would be nice to know why they replaced it with this closed algorithm. Maybe it has something to do with scaling this manual system for a huge network or the usual excuse for dropping great features: “a too small percentage of people use the existing options”.

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