We all remember the early days of “social media”, back when you had to use finger quotes to describe anything by that name.  Friendster, Myspace and any other internet watering hole where you would create a profile, upload a picture, maybe make a post, and then depending on whether or not any of your friends did the same, you might log in again at some point to pass around some snarky comments. Then social media became an important money-making business, which takes us to the Facebook and Twitter we have today. Security is tantamount, along with functionality, accessible APIs and integration into every other account you have online. All of these services come and go with the same basic idea in mind: your friends are friends, and when you share, you share with your friends or the general public, thats it. Your friends have become your personalized news stream just as much as your RSS reader only pulls into the information you want to look at. What happens, though, when your friends are allowed to decide what you should be looking at? Welcome to Google Plus, which tampers with the idea that you know what your friends want.

Take the average user of twitter who follows a few hundred people with maybe half of that following them in return.  The key component here is that the user sees a person or stream of information which is relevant to their interests, so they decide to follow it (identical to an RSS feed, or even making a website your homepage) in order to sculpt their flow of information online.

The big feature in Google Plus that a lot of folks have labeled as the ‘killer app’ is what is called “Circles”. To start with, you make a few circles that describe your friends. Let’s go with “Geeks”, “Bikes” and “Photography”. I know my friend Mike is into photography, so he goes into my photography circle, and I continue organizing my friends by tossing them into groups. This is superior to what Facebook offers when you consider that your parents, friends from high school, co-workers and acquaintances all end up in the same pile. With Circles you can finally organize your online groups of friends.

The drawback, however, begins when you decide to share something. Recently a local company developed a bike that can shift gears by monitoring your brainwaves.  Pretty cool and definitely in the “Bikes” and “Geeks” circle. Thanks to circles, I can choose to share this new story with folks in those groups and that way, people who don’t care about these things don’t get clutter in their stream. I can effectively lower the signal to noise ratio which we all have to manage in our digital streams. What also happens is that I’m making decisions for people like my friend Mike, deciding that since he isn’t in my Bikes or Geeks circle, he doesn’t need to see this article.

Little do I know, Mike is actually a neuroscientist who rides a mountain bike on the weekend.

Due to how big our digital streams have gotten, we now crave control, and furthermore, we crave controls that manage themselves. When you log into Amazon, you get advertised products based on what Amazon feels you like, and when you make a search on Google, it uses thousands of metrics that it has collected about you over the years to try to steer you to what you’re most looking for. In the end, we wind up sacrificing discovery for the sake of speed and accuracy.

Remember libraries? My neither. Remember walking through the tall shelves, looking for a book, only to stumble upon a book about a rhinoceros, and ending up checking that book out as well as the book you’re looking for? This is what we can do less and less with todays web. With individuals and businesses working on best-guesses of what you actually care about, the list of new things for you to stumble upon shrinks exponentially, with a potentially devastating affect on global consciousness.

This rant is just a small sampling of the sort of discussions you can jump in on at Podcamp Pittsburgh.  If this is something you felt especially passionate about, you could even give a session on it, because Podcamp is nothing without our attendees and our wonderful speakers who are there to educate and stir up a few brain cells. 

Hope to see you there, and I can promise I won’t be deciding what sessions you’ll be going to.

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