3 Reasons Why Google+ Won’t Solve the Privacy Problem

Thanks to Eric Dye, I got an early invite to Google+, and though I wish it came out a few years ago and everyone was already on it, it’s really fun to play with all the cool new features like a great UI, fantastic group video chat, great sharing and profile tools.

But the key feature to the whole thing is the concept of “Circles” which is Google’s attempt to solve the biggest problem that has arisen from social networking. Before we jump into the tool, let’s see how we got here.

Relational Spheres Before Circles

In my freshmen year of high school, I started dating a girl named Jennifer. She was great, but there was a catch – she went to a different school. This, of course, meant I was subjected the old, “Sure you have a [air quotes]’girlfriend,’ who goes to [more air quotes]’another school.’”

Those could make this claim because back in the days before ubiquitous social networks, our relationships tended to be bound and defined by the places we went. Our church friends were at church, and our work friends at work, and our school friends at our school. People in one of your relational/location spheres often would never meet people in others.

This meant that you could do something amazing, embarrassing, or even terrible in once place and by default that event would be a secret from your other groups.  The only way that event could be known reliably across those locational spheres was if a person spanned both spheres.

Facebook: What Happens In Vegas Happens Everywhere

Somewhere around 2004, MySpace and other social networks radically altered this arrangement. They promised to help us keep track of everyone we had ever met, and miraculously they came through. But this promise came with a price. As Chris Cox, Facebook’s vice president of product, put it, “Facebook solved this problem of getting all your friends in one place, and created the problem of having all your friends in one place.”

Just like that, the walls of location-based relational spheres vanished. Suddenly everyone was in one place. The benefits are obvious, but the downside is that is that every time Facebook changes its privacy settings and controls, it morphs into a giant robotic taddle-tale indiscriminately sharing everything with everyone. We’re no longer worried about an untrustworthy person – we’re worried about an untrustworthy machine.

Will Google+ Solve This?


Facebook tried to solve this with “Friend lists,” but they buried the feature. Twitter, too, tried to solve it with “Lists.” Now Google+ is giving it a shot by allowing you to approximate your relational spheres by defining “Circles” (Google’s explanation). I’ve already created Circles with obvious names like Friends and Family as well as Web Development, Church Leaders, and so on. I can share tech news with my “Web Development” friends, theological stuff with church folk, and so on.

The interface Google has designed for this is really slick. You can drag and drop people into different Circles and check off Circles right inside Gmail. But as good as it is, there are still some inherent reasons why it can’t fully solve the Privacy issue.

1. The Mechanism Is Hidden and Difficult

Location-based activity and privacy is intuitive. It’s right in front of us and it “just works.” But we can’t really see the inner workings of Google+ Circles or Facebook’s friend lists. We just have to trust that they work the way we hope they do.

Even when the lists work correctly, it takes a lot of effort on our part. What happens naturally in physical locations (you look around to see who’s in the room and then speak in a low voice) takes lots of tedious dragging, dropping, and checking boxes online.

As a computer nerd, I think it’s kinda fun to work with the lists, but I’m guessing that the majority of the broader population, who after years on Facebook have never bothered to create a list, won’t spend much time doing it on Google+ either.

2. The Metaphor Is Inexact and Simplistic

Even when we take the time to make these lists, our “Circles” don’t quite match our relational spheres. If they did, we’d have hundreds of overlapping circles.

For example, you might have a Circle called “family”, but should this include your nuclear family and your extended relatives, or should they be separate? What about people in your church small group that you also work with? Should you just make one big “Friends” Circle?

Whatever you decide, you have to make somewhat artificial (or at least approximate) choices about how see your relationships. I think it’s still better than the one-size-fits all method that Twitter employs (everyone see everything) or the all-your-base-belongs-to-us method of Facebook (you’ll never know exactly who sees what). But it doesn’t “just work.”

3. The Meaning Is Standardized and Self-Centered

Part of the reason why our location-based relationship spheres work as they do is the location itself. When we’re at work, that environment is meant for working. Bars and clubs are, by their nature, conducive to drinking and dancing (or, so I hear, my dear Baptist brethren). And hopefully, our churches are designed as places that encourage the posture of worship.

But on social networks, the input mechanism is the context for every activity. Did God answer a prayer? Type it into a textbox. Did you breakup with your girlfriend? Check a box, and type something in. Did you do something awesome at a party? Upload a pic, then describe it in a textbox.

But even more importantly, in those real world situations everyone at the location is automatically a part of the group. But Google+ Circles are not reciprocal. You might define Circles like “Friends” or “Coders,” but not everyone will define you the same way in reverse. So the Circles aren’t really something we share as a community, it merely represents your personal viewpoint of the world.

So Should You Join?

Of course. Why? Because it’s really fun to try new stuff and Google has made a really cool thing.

But you probably shouldn’t think of it as a way to “solve” the privacy issues. I personally think it’s a better tool for sharing things than Twitter and Facebook and if you already use Google products than the integration is awesome. But in most cases, you’re going to have to the hard work of controlling the content yourself.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why Google+ Won’t Solve the Privacy Problem”

  1. I have been ‘anti-social network’ since Facebook almost wrecked my 23 year marriage. I deleted my account long ago, but have found it difficult to maintain my social network free lifestyle. I, too, have signed up with Google Plus, but am jittery about diving in.

    1. Aaron, I’d be happy to be in one of your “outer circles” :) I think you’ll have fun with Google+ as long as you remember that just like Facebook, Google+ can’t *cause* problems in your marriage, but it does open up doors that you have to choose not to go through.

  2. I remember seeing a post about the “circle” concept a while back and thought it was spot on. I like how it’s being implemented here.

    Oddly enough, I still find myself posting everything to all my circles. I’m not sure if I’m stuck in my old Facebook/Twitter habits or not. Sure I post my geeky tech links, but sometimes I like to share those with my non-tech friends in hopes they might gain some insight or enjoy an random quip about iterators in C#.

    I haven’t been able to find it on my main computer yet, but last night I clicked the “Location” link that showed up on the mobile version of Google+. It brought up some pics a guy for his daughter who scraped herself up on her bike the other day.

    That weirded me out a little bit, more from his perspective than mine. I wonder if he knew that was going out to everybody or not, and how that changes in the privacy settings.

    Have you tried that out at all?

    1. Sean,
      Your examples are spot on. I, too, like Circles but already I’m seeing that people just don’t seem to want to go through all the work of double-checking that things are 100% private.

  3. Thanks for this review. I’ve gotten two invites already and have tried to respond to one of them, but it came back and told me that it’s oversubscribed and I’ll have to wait.

    Even without trying it for myself, I had come to some of the same conclusions about Circles – they’re not reciprocal, and it’ll take a lot of finicky tweaking to get them to approximate your real-life circles of friends which are constantly in flux and have fuzzy boundaries. I have tried to maintain “groups” of email addresses in Outlook for extended family, Regent alum friends, workmates, etc. But they are constantly getting outdated. Also there will be times when you want to communicate with only some subset of a group (e.g., to plan a surprise party for one of them). Do you create a separate temporary subgroup?

    Anyway, in spite of the limitations, I am still interested in playing with Google+ when I can manage to sign up. But I don’t think it will be a replacement for Facebook. FB got too big of a lead in the race, and I’m guessing that not enough of my friends will want to make the leap over from FB to Google+ to make the latter worth making my primary social networking tool. Pity.

    1. Rosie,
      I started out with lots of Circles, but I’m hoping to pair them down to something simple that lets me keep a few thing private and everything else public.

    2. If you are hesitant about trying to recreate your entire social network on Google+ you should try out CliqCloud. It imports all of your Facebook and Twitter data and lets you build user defined groups like the circles in Google+. Only difference is that it is still using all of your existing Facebook friends – no need to move anything over. It is still in beta i think and still finalizing the privacy controls but looks promising. A way to impose privacy and put up a “wall” around your social networking.

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