Google+ Circles: Illusion of privacy

Privacy control is one reason Google+, the new kid in the social media sphere, is getting rave reviews. It's intrigued me enough that I've signed up. But I'm not quite convinced that what appears to be a growing obsession with privacy will power the search engine behemoth's push in an arena dominated by Facebook which in 2010 had users comprising 10 per cent of the Earth's population.

In a Time edition in which Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was named The 2010 Person of the Year, Richard Stengel wrote: "All social media involve a mixture of narcissism and voyeurism. Most of us display a combination of the two, which is why social media are flourishing faster and penetrating deeper than any other social development in memory."

Signs of this abound on Facebook.

Why Facebook is popular?

Alone in your room at night, you open your News Feed, click on a post by a friend you've met through work correspondence, and find out she's enrolled in a pole dancing class. You marvel at the "discovery" for a few seconds or minutes, depending on your level of voyeurism and move on to important tasks.

Some Facebook users want more privacy controls on things they share, while others are glad the Zuckerberg idea of privacy clouds their stream of posts to blow their own trumpets.

Here comes Google+, a social media project that appears to be giving users the dial to regulate the level of their own narcissism and others' voyeurism. It is touted to be the archrival that is taking the cue from Facebook critics.

Introducing Circles. In Google+, you assign people to Circles. When you post, you indicate the people you're giving access to it by specifying a Circle. If you're the type who believes that everything you share is relevant to anyone, you pick "Public" before you click on the share button.

It works in cases when you want a discussion among specific people in your social graph. If you're the type who fusses about unintentionally giving the idea that you are vain, choosing Circles assures you you are not so egotistical to believe that what interests you is worth everyone's time.

It has flaws.

Once you indicate a Circle before posting, yes it may wall off voyeurs. But just because you did not include William and Kate in, say, your Rock Climbing Circle doesn't mean you classify them voyeurs in a discussion on muscle injury. You haven't seen them for two years and you don't know they may have been considering taking up the sport.

If you're not very selective when sharing on Google+, you could be the person who would usher William and Kate into the world of rock climbing. And that chance "encounter" is possible on Facebook where Zuckerberg encourages users to connect and share.

We learn or discover new things on Facebook, sometimes useful tidbits that a friend did not intend to share with us but to her other friends.

Inday Varona and Stella Arnaldo are two Facebook friends of mine. The comments on their Walls have become my yardstick of sorts on what has become a burning topic back home in Manila. Inday, I suspect, does not know who I am. I sent her a friend request.

Her list of Facebook friends is a roster of personalities politics, media, academia, civil society whose opinions can be a gauge of whether a bill is likely to cause a storm. If we all left the Zuckerberg world and moved to Google+, and Inday opted to group friends, I wouldn't make it to any of her privileged Circles.

Granting I were one of Inday's coffeetime friends, she'd drag my name into her Google+ Circles. Does that assure us we can privately mock the odd couple that William and Kate make?

Circles isoverrated.

Circles can give people the illusory impression that they are holding a conversation safe from an unwelcome presence. Your guard down, the person you are denigrating, or his cousin, may be in the same Circle with you.

You can be cautious if you wish. When you read a post meant for specific Circles, you will see a button that says "Limited".

Click on it and a pop-up tells you who can view the comments. If you're happily unemployed, you could do this precautionary step each time you comment. Plus (pun intended), anyone who views the post and its comments thread can share the entire thing to his own Circles or to everyone on Google+. Not unless the person who created the post disabled further sharing.

Don't expect the social media sphere to perfectly replicate the privacy we create when we huddle at the corridor in the workplace.

You can dislike Zuckerberg for despising privacy. But if there's anything that you do not want someone to know, don't do it in the social media space. Like in conversations in a tight group offline, it's not impossible for somebody to turn out to be a rat.

The views are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Brunei Times.The Brunei Times