Facebook lists and Google+ circles: The bucket approach and how it fails
Google plus has created a lot of buzz (not Google Buzz), and the buzz did not take long to reach Facebook developers. Yet This is not a long one comparing the two services head on, but rather a narrow focus on the concept of controlled groups. Controlled groups allow users to choose whom to share with and whom to read from.
Life in circles
Google’s new attempt at social networking is focused on giving user’s more control over their content and also addressing their privacy concerns.
Its major USP was to allow the users to create controlled groups, termed as circles, which allowed them to choose whom to share with. It also allows users to read only from the circles that they prefer – choice in content consumption is a big relief, especially when we see what happens when our feeds get cluttered with junk requests and automated application updates.
The new service surely aroused a lot of interest and the early adopters thronged in large numbers. This definitely created some unrest in Facebook quarters and a strong response was imminent – warranted or unwarranted – it remains be seen.
Yes, so Facebook responded, and strongly so, by directly incorporating the lists feature in their interface. What list essentially is nothing but another way to allow users to create controlled groups to choose whom to share with and whom to read from. Google does it in their circles, Facebook does it in lists. Both are defined buckets in which we dump profiles.
Earlier, as Facebook became a virtual directory with the number of friends in user networks increasing exponentially, managing friends became difficult. So Facebook in 2007 first introduced a feature that allowed users to group their friends into categories. However, there was not way then to filter the feeds according to these categories.
Now, with the introduction of lists, the feature that allowed categorisation of friends goes away. Lists not only serves to categorise friends, but also to filter and pick and choose list-specific feeds. However, one major difference between circles and list is that circles is intrinsic to Google plus and there is no getting around it, while adding a fried to the list is optional and if we do not add it to specific list it will be added to ‘Friends’ category by default.
The cognitive load with the bucket system
I really believe that sorting and categorising friends list from a large bucket of profiles is no easy task. Also, an option to add friends to circles / lists levies unnecessary cognitive burden on the user for simple tasks like adding friends or following someone’s feeds.
When there are 10 different circles or list that I have to add a particular profile to, often it become a difficult task to choose, primarily because there is almost always an overlap between these circles and lists.
The flawed approach
Currently the process, be it Facebook or Google plus, works this way -
Create buckets –> Sort profiles –> Add them to the buckets
What this means that buckets accommodate profiles. The focus is on buckets and the profiles just crowd in. But ideally, it should be other way round – the focus should be on the profiles and not the circles and the lists. The entire purpose of these categorisation is to selectively share with the required profiles or follow their feeds. Essentially this means that we need to filter and sort the profiles, and sorting doesn’t need compartmentalisation. All it requires it attaching required attributes to the required profiles. In this way the profiles remain at the centre of things and these filters are in the form of tags and labels that helps to identify the similar ones.
How is tagging different from the bucket approach?
One primary difference is the fact that lists and circles are confining profiles in a predefined limited niche, where as tagging is attaching attributes to profiles with any constrained. Essentially if you consider lists and circles as form of tags, it is fine and functions perfectly the same way as you would want them to as long as sharing and following remains a surface level activity. But think of it this way, when I have two buckets (lists or circles), say profiles categorised on city, such as Mumbai, and the other bucket based on the kind of activity, say trekking. So as long as my requirements remains sharing or following either one of these buckets, this system works perfectly fine.
But what if I want to share or follow only the Trekkers in Mumbai? Also as these two buckets do not overlap, but the profiles are duplicated in the two buckets, there is no way to have a common ground. Do I need to create a third bucket to help me achieve this requirement? If not, then how does only the required profiles leak out from both the buckets?
This is where the bucket approach fails.
Instead if I attach tags to the required profiles, I can can not only sort them tag wise, but the system can also allow me select two or more tags at a time which will allow me to sort only those profiles that is attributed with the required tags. This is perfectly feasible, as for sorting we are not confining the profiles, but instead sorting them from a pool – very similar to separating iron particles from a pool of other non metallic particles. The iron particles will cling to the magnet (tags) and the the rest won’t.
What Google has done and what Facebook is following hastily is not a ground breaking approach or new feature – it is just an extension of categorisation, a bucketing approach that has been in existence since long and it fails when multiple categories comes into the picture. We expect better things and thoughts afresh from both these resource heavy powerhouses to focus on elements, the user, the profiles, rather than piling up features and playing cat-n-mouse between themselves.