(1) One of my first thoughts upon getting my hands on an iPad was: “You know, once they get a camera in this thing and come up with a well-tailored group video chat client, this could really change the way people socialize.” At present, in-person, face-to-face socialization and digital communication with people not present are inherently sort of at odds. We’ve made them a little more compatible by limiting the extent to which the virtual interaction pulls you out of the physical one—so instead of excusing yourself to answer a call or a GChat, you can just glance down at your phone and, at a convenient moment, tap out a quick reply to a text or a tweet. Google’s circle-based “Hangouts” (and it’s vital that you can quickly and easily launch a video “room” open just to one or another of your preselected groups) combined with camera-enabled tablets open the door to a way of integrating the two. Potentially, the tablet becomes a sort of wandering window—a Stargate, if you want to be extra geeky about it—between not just individuals, as with your standard Skype chat, but between two or more groups of physically co-located people. Popular as Skype is for certain purposes—grandparents who want to see the new baby, partners in long-distance relationships—most of us don’t make a whole lot of use of videoconferencing for the same reason lots of us prefer text based asynchronous chat to phone calls: It tends to demand your full attention for a fixed period of time, except it’s even more intrusive and demanding than a phone. Making it mobile at a suitable-for-public-viewing size changes things, in a way because it changes the norms around it. You won’t necessarily be expected to give your full attention as you would to a person-to-person call. Instead, the use could be more like ordinary physical socialization at a party: Maybe you notice a friend passing by the “window” and strike up a conversation for a bit, maybe someone else joins in—but then maybe it just sits “open” for a while as you flit off to talk to other people. Everyone’s more comfortable opening the channel and leaving it active because it’s not making the same kind of demands as a phone call.
So, for instance, maybe I’m having a beer with a couple neighbors on my porch, a bunch of other folks are across town where a BBQ I plan to swing by later is getting into gear, and another friend is stuck in a hotel room in the Midwest on a reporting trip and doesn’t want to totally miss out. Most of us are probably talking to our co-located people, but the experience is shared without anyone having to retreat from socialization to tap at their phones. If I want to know when a critical mass of folks I know have arrived at the BBQ, there’s no need to keep checking Twitter, and no need for them to go out of their way to announce their arrival—I just notice out of the corner of my eye that folks are there and, hey, maybe it’s time to hop a bus over. Our friend in the hotel can do his work, but also perhaps welcome the occasional distraction as a friend walk by the Stargate and checks in. Could be a short-lived fad, but I think it could also be as socially normal, in the relatively near future, to have social gatherings connected by virtual windows as it is to text friends about what you’re doing.
(2) The feature most immediately likely to be useful is huddle, which facilitates more conventional text/IM style communication with a select group in a kind of mobile-friendly chat room—handy when you’re trying to coordinate plans with a dozen people.
I note though, that there may be some interesting side effects of integrating virtual social networks more closely into actual socialization. With social circles—as opposed to Circles—the boundaries are fuzzy and ad-hoc. Even among a somewhat well-defined group of friends, it’s always somewhat a matter of happenstance which particular subsets of people end up communicating and making plans on any given day. A person may gradually drift out of touch with once circle and into another in a gradual and almost imperceptible way, ideally with no hard feelings on either side.
Making it technologically easy to communicate with groups means that, for activities involving more than a relative handful of people, that technology becomes more likely to be the default mechanism of interaction. Individuals will define their own Circles, but there will be a tendency toward convergence. But these aren’t fuzzy-bordered circles, they’re Circles in which membership is really an either-or. I wonder if we won’t find ourselves feeling the need to make uncomfortably explicit, conscious decisions about who’s in the “folks I meet for drinks after work” or “always invited to parties” group—which seems rather more freighted than the question of who happened to get asked to come out for a specific round of drinks or a particular party.. People, of course, don’t see which circles anyone else has included them in, but to the extent they’re the basis of actual group interaction, it should be readily apparent to everyone quickly enough who is and isn’t part of the conversation. I’m guessing this sets up some potential awkwardness as people figure out how to navigate all that.
(3) Finally, as Mike Masnick observes, some people are already worrying about a potential privacy “loophole” in G+: Items shared with one “circle” can, by default, easily be RE-shared by the members of that circle. I agree with Mike that it’s weird to treat this as some kind of disturbing privacy violation on Google’s part: After all, in general, everything we share with one set of friends might be shared by them with others. Something you say in conversation might be repeated; a photo you e-mail can be forwarded. Normally, the solution is to ensure that your friends know when you don’t want a specific bit of informatoin shouted to the four winds.
That said, a lot of privacy has more to do with ease of information sharing than whether it’spossible, and more to do with the clarity of norms than explicit prohibitions. Someone could copy the contents of a private e-mail (or, by hand, the contents of a private letter) and forward it to hundreds of friends. But that would be both effortful and rude. If I share a photo with my “Friends” circle, I realize they could save and reupload it if there’s not sharing functionality built in… but they’d have to be big jerks (and ergo probably not “Friends”) to make the effort to do so, in particular if I’ve signaled via my settings that I don’t expect these pictures to be more widely circulated.
It’s not a question of Google “violating my privacy,” which is the unhelpful frame of stories about social networks much of the time. But what Google can do is facilitate social signalling about the information norms we expect friends, peers, and colleagues to respect. On most Twitter clients, for instance, while you can always copy-and-paste text into a retweet, the one-click retweet button is inactive for tweets from locked accounts. Obviously, that doesn’t literally prevent anyone from sharing a message on a private feed—it just means it’s hard to do it thoughtlessly, and the very fact that you’ve got to take the unusual extra step of doing it manually reminds you that, hey, your friend doesn’t actually expect this stuff to be more widely distributed. Increasingly, I think, having “good privacy practices” as a social networking site isn’t going to be so much about what the site does with your information (important as that is), or even about the literal control they give you—since “control” over information in any really strong sense is always pretty chimerical—but how fluidly and organically they allow us to establish norms and articulate expectations about how our peers will use the information they have access to.