December 22, 2011

Social Networking With Strangers

There’s a well-known saying attributed to the poet and playwright William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.”

As social networking has evolved to encompass a significant amount of people’s time on the Internet, divergent approaches to friending and following, sharing publicly and sharing selectively have emerged. Some networks have a solely synchronous relationship, where the bond can be broken unilaterally by either individual, but must be initiated by one and accepted by another, while others are asynchronous, meaning one can follow the content you make available publicly, even if you don’t explicitly pass approval.

The two best-known social networks that primarily rely on a synchronous relationship are Facebook and LinkedIn, preceded by sites like Friendster and MySpace. In September, Facebook introduced a “Subscribe” feature, which is asynchronous, but to be counted as “friend”, the connection must be mutual. LinkedIn connections are also mutual.

Other services, including, most notably, Twitter, but also FriendFeed and Google+, have used asynchronous relationships. For Twitter and FriendFeed, anybody who ran into your content, whether following you directly, or discovering it through search or friend recommendations, could respond to it via a Like, a Retweet, a Comment or Share. The same is true for public posts on Google+, while sharing to limited circles on Google+ reduces the visibility to those you have explicitly selected.

(Disclosure of course: I am on the Product Marketing team at Google+, and joined in August. Comments I make about the service and other social products are done with the best of intentions to be fully accurate.)

That people you don’t explicitly know or have a mutual relationship with can engage on your content can be a surprise, or even unnerving, to some users. While Twitter has seen user following numbers vault into the tens of thousands or even millions for some celebrities, not all have embraced the interest of being followed by the masses, who are often simply people interested in you or your content, not necessarily bad actors. Not blurring the lines of a “friend”, Twitter calls them “followers”, while FriendFeed calls these people “subscribers”, relating a connection between the individual and your content, not necessarily you.

Those used to an asynchronous model are used to connections with strangers, while others used to a synchronous model are often quite verbal about what is perceived as an onrush of random connections. As Google+ has been in the market for about six months, many users have been quite surprised at the high number of people who have them in circles, and I’ve seen some say they block those they don’t know. But as someone who has engaged in both models, the value comes from learning who sees your content, and what that means - especially on a network like Google+, where you can fine tune what content reaches which people.

Who Are These People Following Me? (via SocialStatistics)

For me, the overwhelming majority of people I interact with on social networks are people I met first through the web. I have made tremendous real-life friendships that started out as an online only relationship to start, through reading one another’s blogs, leaving comments, following people on Twitter and Google Reader, or any other myriad of places. Many of the colleagues I have now at Google are people who I knew years prior through FriendFeed, Twitter and their blogs, helping me continue the conversation when we finally met, rather than starting cold.

Not all online relationships turn into real life relationships later, of course, and not everything you share should reach everyone, particularly people you don’t know well.

On Twitter, if someone follows you, and your feed is public, your content is shared with them. The exception is when you may be doing @replies to a person they don’t follow as well. It makes sense to share on Twitter what you assume all your followers would see.

On Facebook, your publicly shared content is available to your friends and those who are subscribers to your public content. To share more selectively, choose one of the lists you have created. Strangers who follow you should not have access to this content, so you are at lower risk of oversharing if you use lists.

On Google+, your publicly shared content is available to all people who have you in circles, anyone who browses your profile or anyone who has a direct link to your content. To share your content without reaching strangers, you have multiple options, including sharing to any individual, any circle, to all your circles, or even extended circles, which reaches all those people you follow and those they follow. You can share as widely or as thinly as you like, and keep your content safe.

The goal is to share the right content with the right people. As people who you may not know add you, they are opting in to your public content, and nothing more. They don’t get any additional access to your contact information, photos or shares, and like Facebook and FriendFeed, you can moderate any comments in your stream, to remove spam or other unwanted feedback.

There’s no downside to new people asking to have access to your public shares, even if you don’t know them yet - and you just might be surprised about the relationships you build in the future. The requirement on your end, on any service, and trust me, I’ve tried just about all of them, is knowing what you are sharing and with whom. It’s our job, and those of other products on the web, to make this simple and easy.

You can connect with me on Google+ by going to Howdy, stranger.