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Google+ – fundamental misunderstanding of networks?

I’ve been playing around with Google+. As others have stated, it’s Google’s best foray into social networking. It’s an impressive product, defined by Google’s typical clean interface. The idea of “circles” is somewhat related to Twitter Lists and is helpful for organizing friends/colleagues and tracking different activity streams. Within our research on social network software at Athabasca University (the Elgg-based The Landing), we (mainly Jon Dron, actually) have been looking at ways to create different representations of activity streams to meet the needs of different contexts. Elgg – with its varied activity feed – is an early implementation of Circles. In fact, Elgg was far enough ahead of both Facebook and Google that only this year – with Facebook’s Groups and Google’s Circles – have popular SNS offerings caught up with what has been central to ELgg for several years.

In spite of the promising state of G+, I have a few concerns. Some are small – such as “what kind of a goofy URL have you foisted upon us Google” – mine is: https://plus.google.com/112869117429645144444/. Yes, I’ll remember that. “I’m gsiemens on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to connect with me on G+, I’m 11286911….”

Other concerns are significant and may represent a misunderstanding on Google’s part about how people structure themselves in personal networks. Most evident is Google’s power law making network ways in G+. While power laws (Pareto’s Principle) may exist in many areas of our lives – banking, TV watching habits, book purchases – they are surprisingly absent at a personal level. Yes, I likely respond to a small cluster of blogs and tweets that I encounter. But my personal networks – family and friends – don’t seem to have the power law structure of my public identity. For example, I move fairly fluidly between my personal networks. Facebook gets this. I’ve had very few “way out there” friend suggestions on Facebook.

G+, on the other hand, has been busy trying to make kings of a few: Robert Scoble, Mike Arrington, Loic Le Muer, Mark Zuckerberg, and so on. (Techcrunch addresses this issue as well.) I have precisely zero interest in those people. Nothing in my email history indicates that I would like to connect with them. Google’s algorithm is whacked on how it recommends friends: it is recommending them based on power laws (who is most popular) not on my personal interests. This is a fundamental and significant misunderstanding of social networks. Network properties are different at a personal and social level than they are in public spaces. Worse, G+ is, with this friending approach, altering the influence of individuals in networks. Personal networks don’t need Lady Gaga’s. Public networks do. Google doesn’t get that.

For some reason that I’m not fully clear on, I’m concerned that Google is more in the mode of gaming networks than in helping people connect to people that matter or are personally interesting. Is the intent to get early tech geek adopters to fall in love with G+ and feel invested because they have tremendous follower counts? If so, then there is some hope for G+. They just have to recommending by generic network/power law algorithms and start recommending by MY personal interest and existing network. If G+ isn’t recommending based on driving geek adoption, then I’m afraid Google doesn’t understand the distinction between networks as a mathematical entity and networks as a personal, lived, experience.

24 Comments

  1. I agree with you that the recommendations engine doesn’t work. I find that it is not recommending new people to me who have similar personal and professional interests. Mind you, I find that hard to discern because it is not clear who is interested in what without clicking through to the profile for each user. This a chore.

    Overall, I do think that G+ is promising but needs improvement. It falls between Twitter and FB for me. I like the simplicity and brevity of Twitter but find that, at the moment at least, i get more interaction on G+.

    Cheers

    Mark

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 3:39 am | Permalink
  2. José Mota wrote:

    I sure hope your first option is the right one, i.e. Google is trying to take off well by drawing strong support from people that have a notorious online presence and influence a lot of other people. Otherwise, it’ll be a great disappointment, if they are aiming at a broadcast network for “celebrities”. I won’t be there long, if that’s the case.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 3:51 am | Permalink
  3. Neil Mehta wrote:

    At first blush one can get the feeling that you are being recommended “Power People”.
    But the key difference is that you can have circles of people whom you interact with, circles whom you just follow. You don’t have to interact with the PowerPeople. As you state G+ has features of both FB and Twitter. One approach would be to use it in just those 2 modes as I blogged here. http://blogedutech.blogspot.com/2011/07/2-circle-google-migration-strategy-for.html.
    I personally have found G+ most useful for getting into deeper conversations with folks and broadening my horizons. Is that social constructivism?

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  4. I agree with you to a certain extent, however I feel that G+ is trying to combine public network features (like Twitter) and private network features (like Facebook). The circles allow me to ‘follow’ poeple as I do on twitter. Here the suggestions make sense to a certain degree (I still think that the Twitter suggestions I get are better though). I just love that I can do what I did on Twitter and Facebook from one neat interface. I really think that they should introduce nested/concentrical/hierarchical circles to make sharing with the right people easier…

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  5. Pat Parslow wrote:

    Actually I am pretty sure Google is using a fairly standard recommender system along the lines of “People who follow the type of people you follow also follow these people…” which is distorted because a lot of people follow the ‘celebrities’. A more personal recommender would, in my opinion, show dividends.

    Oddly though, I have to disagree about the utility of the FB recommender to the Google one. It’s early days for G+, certainly, but it has suggested a few people who would be in my ‘extended network’ in Twitter who I was interested in following but hadn’t previously been aware of. To date, Facebook has correctly identified 1 person I might have had a vague interest in connecting with. 1. That is an appallingly low level of adequacy, which, frankly, would be rapidly and easily beaten by offering me three random Facebook members each day.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  6. As always, you make an interesting observation here George. For what its worth I’m more inclined to participate on G+ than FB largely because of who the two differ on their approach to privacy. I think G+ handles that much better. I’m also in the same camp as Pat above. It’s still very early days for G+, observations like yours shared with the G+ team are likely to be acted on sooner than later.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  7. Andrew Shooner wrote:

    I would add two points:

    I would have expected a ‘circle’ recommendation engine rather than an (or in addition to) an overall recommendations, which might work in a similar fashion to gmail’s suggested cc feature.

    Adding to Darren’s point about privacy: G+’s richer and extensible sharing model (the circles) is significant. It breaks down the panopticon that are fundamental to the fb/twitter experience. That is to say, in G+ I no longer self-edit how I want to share with some people in my network out of concern for other people in my network. Its more natural and more like how we actually communicate offline. I never understood why FB ever implemented the binary ‘friend’ semantic in the first place.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink
  8. gsiemens wrote:

    @Mark – agreed – G+ is promising. I just don’t like the feeling that I’m being gamed by a recommender system (though, in reality, we’re being gamed every time we receive a suggestion or recommendation for people/content). Maybe my real point is: I know you’re manipulating me. Tell me how you’re making decisions – i.e. reveal your method/models/algorithms.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  9. gsiemens wrote:

    @Jose – as others have noted, I’m sure G+ is frantically developing behind the scenes. They may be targeting early enthusiasts to spread the word…

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  10. gsiemens wrote:

    @Neil – yes – the circles option makes things much easier to manage different network subsets. Jon Dron made a similar argument here: https://plus.google.com/112869117429645144444/posts/Uxdb8nZ4AH9

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  11. gsiemens wrote:

    @Stephan – ah, I should have included you in my reply to Neil!

    Quick point – Elgg had this level of differentiation several years ago. It forms a big part of Jon Dron’s research at AU and validates a fair bit of what he has been promoting with Elgg for a while now.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  12. gsiemens wrote:

    @Pat – hmm – FB hasn’t been very good to you :) . I’ve had numerous helpful friend recommendations on both FB and Twitter. Regardless, I agree that recommender systems in FB (can I expand that to all SNS?) are appallingly poor at doing their job.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  13. gsiemens wrote:

    @Darren – completely agree. FB is a popular, but hated, system – too many privacy errors. To secretive. Too closed. While Google is equally secretive, they at least allow data to be removed (Data liberation Front: http://www.dataliberation.org/)

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  14. gsiemens wrote:

    @Andrew – good point about “circle recommendations”. Maybe that’s forthcoming.

    The different friending models of FB/Twitter/Square/G+/etc are interesting – I haven’t seen a good comparison between them…but it’s an important topic to explore (i.e. how do different friending structures within networks influence communication, dialogue, etc.).

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  15. Very much agreed. I’ve said it already that what’s popular is not necessarily what’s relevant to me. http://www.eqentia.com/2010/12/on-social-knowledge-what%E2%80%99s-interesting-vs-what%E2%80%99s-relevant/

    Social media and networks have more mindshare than market share, and we’re being pulled to it, and forgetting to look for what’s relevant and targeted for us.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink
  16. Doug Clow wrote:

    The point about the importance of ‘showing the workings’ in recommender systems is a very good one, I think. We need to keep that very high in our minds when developing learner-facing learning analytics.

    There’s an underlying question of whether it is a social network, or a personal one. One thing I find particularly valuable about online social networks is the blurring of that boundary. I can interact productively with all sorts of people, including those I wouldn’t care to have as personal contacts, or indeed wouldn’t care to have me as a personal contact.

    So, for instance, I happen to like Lady Gaga, but I wouldn’t invite her out for a beer.

    Another factor that may have led Google to work up a recommender system that wasn’t wholly or mainly driven by your email contacts is the grief they got round the launch of Buzz, where there were unfortunate incidents such as the one where an abusive ex-partner was added (http://gizmodo.com/5470696/fck-you-google).

    I think they are actively working on it. I was lucky to blag my way in quite early, and its first suggestions were indeed frequent email contacts from my Gmail account. It was rather insistent on suggesting my parents, whom I love dearly but don’t particularly want as G+ connections. The system seems to produce markedly different results when I’ve tried it (separated by a day or so): there was one time it gave me the Sergey Brins and Mark Zuckerbergs, and then another where it seemed to be close to generating a tech/ed-tech type circle. Of course, it may also be that the engine does much better the more it has to go on. Also, it seems to do reasonably well at not showing you the same suggestions more than a handful of times.

    Oh, and one more thing: the distributions you’re describing as power laws … I would lay good money (or at least, a beer) that many, if not most, are not actually power laws. :-)

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  17. Just a small (but hopefully useful) pointer;

    If you want an easier to remember url for your G+ profile just send people to:

    https://profiles.google.com/gsiemens

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  18. Droidfan wrote:

    I think it is early days yet. First it will take a while for the user base and my usage to have a large enough pool of experience for the recommendations to improve. Further, I follow people of interest who do not add me to their circles. Should the recommendations ignore those people. I think Google+ will always give a wider range of recommendations. But I bet in time, Google will add filters to allow you to fine tune your recommendations. As always with Google, it pays to be patient and participate.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  19. Jack Yan wrote:

    I can’t really understand Google Plus. I see I have 18 people pre-blocked. Some are my friends, others are strangers. I have never blocked them. (I had used Wave briefly, but only had two friends on there; I had never used Buzz, so they can’t have come from those services.) Rather than call it a social network, and as the idea is to block people before you get started, then perhaps Google should call Plus an antisocial network?

    Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  20. Interesting comments here as all try to figure out what Google is doing with our brains :-) I’m trying to work out the relationship between Google Me and Google + and when I search on the former all the posts are from 2010 (e.g. http://techcrunch.com/2010/06/29/google-me-facebook/) and one of them even took me to this page which is all about Google Plus (no longer ME): http://www.stateofsearch.com/how-to-use-google-a-quick-guide-and-thoughts-on-google-plus/

    The reason I was looking for Google Me is because by way of explanation of the logic behind circles, this is all reminiscent of a great slide presentation (about weak and strong ties and Google Me) by Paul Adams which I found linked from here: http://smarterware.org/6561/what-to-expect-from-google-me?

    This presentation gives some inkling of the thinking that appears to have surfaced in Google+

    Meanwhile, as to getting a plus.google.com handle, was that done with http://gplus.to ?? Just curious.

    Vance

    Monday, July 11, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink
  21. Alex wrote:

    The recommendations seem to be working very well for me. Of course, it’s keying off of my Google Contacts/Facebook Contacts/MSN Contacts. People blocked were people that I had previously blocked on Picasa and Google Reader.

    Monday, July 11, 2011 at 3:49 am | Permalink
  22. Isn’t the engine fed by you? I don’t connect my google profile to any of my other accounts. I only added a handful of people to my circles to start off. If I select the circles page, and look at the suggestions, it’s almost all people I know from Twitter. https://skitch.com/injenuity/fjj51/circles-google I assume it’s because these are people in common between those I’ve already added to circles.
    On my home page, I can tell all the suggestions come from my email. I’ve never deleted my gmail, so I have over 15,000 messages stored. The people going through the turnover in the home page suggestions, are as obscure as one time email to respond to a craigslist ad or apply for a job, to my friends and family, to people I’ve blocked in google talk. I haven’t seen any celebrity recommendations.

    Monday, July 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  23. Jack Yan wrote:

    Alex, thank you for your insight on the blocked people. I don’t use either Picasa or Google Reader (or Gmail), but I was given a Reader account when I began following blogs on Blogger many years ago. I did block folks there when trying to remove my Reader account (unsuccessfully), but I don’t recall these particular 18. Some I didn’t even know till the last year or so, by which time I was no longer a Blogger user. (Google, meanwhile, appears to have held on to data from one of my blogs without my consent, if Google Dashboard is correct.)

    Google has picked my 18 pre-blocked people from somewhere, but I’m at a total loss as to where.

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  24. tiffany fareed wrote:

    Google is a money making network. the network makes their off of selling people email address to other companies to make a profit. However Google has it flaws and all. Just some days ago I received and email from and company that had no involvement in but doing my research I found out that Google sold my email.

    Monday, July 18, 2011 at 8:38 pm | Permalink