Are Google and Facebook splintering the social web?

Facebook is in the process of rolling out a sweeping series of changes to the way users can control their profiles and content-sharing on the massive social network. Among other things, the changes allow users to selectively share status updates or content with certain groups of friends, just as Google+ (s goog) introduced the idea of Circles, which allow users of that network to segregate the people they follow into specific groups. These kinds of features are seen by many as a positive step for privacy — but will they make people less likely to share what they are doing with the public at large? And how will that affect the social web?

As my GigaOM colleague Colleen Taylor notes in her post about the news, the new Facebook features involve a number of changes to the way that user profiles, photos, tagging and other elements of the social network are handled. In some cases users now have new abilities — such as the ability to specify who can see specific pieces of content they upload, or the ability to reject a tag that someone has applied to a photo without their permission — and in other cases existing settings have been made more visible or easier to get to, such as the changes that let you control who sees your profile page. The Facebook blog has a rundown of all the changes with screenshots.

An improvement for privacy, or just less sharing?

Many of the responses to these changes focused on how they were clearly Facebook’s response to Google+ (although the social network denied this, saying it has been working on the new features since before Google+ was launched) and how they are a big improvement for a social network that has been criticized so often in the past for playing fast and loose with users’ privacy. Erica Newland, a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, praised the new settings in a comment she made to CNET:

I think we are seeing a trend right now towards empowering users to have granular controls over types of information they share or information about them that is shared. It’s a sign that companies like Facebook and Google are competing on privacy.

Some of the changes, such as giving users the ability to reject a tag on a photo, are clearly a good thing. The whole idea that users could tag you in a picture without even asking you — and thus have it posted to their stream and elsewhere for plenty of people to see, even if you weren’t actually there — seemed kind of odd to me when Facebook first announced it (as did the ability to tag people at certain places). And choosing who can see your profile also makes sense, especially for people who want to protect their profile from being seen by bosses, co-workers, etc. for some reason.

But the part that got me thinking was the Circles-style ability to pick from a drop-down menu who to share a particular update with. Facebook said that in addition to allowing users to choose either “Public” (a setting formerly known as “Everyone”) or “Friends,” the new feature would be broadened over time to allow the creation of custom sharing settings as well as the ability to share with Groups or lists. And that makes me wonder about how many people will use it, and the effect it will have on the social network as a whole.

How many will actually use these features?

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that some people may just want to share certain photos with their family, or status updates about a specific topic with a certain group of friends. I know people who don’t like Facebook and some other social networks in part because they feel like they are being forced to share their whole lives with the world, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. As blogger Robert Scoble notes, this is pretty common with older users and with people who just aren’t all that social to begin with. And maybe Facebook’s changes and Google+ Circles will allow them to manage that in a way that makes them feel more comfortable.

But I keep coming back to my own use of Facebook and Google+ when it comes to these kinds of features. I know that I am not a typical user, but that’s part of my point — if even I can’t be bothered to create Facebook lists and groups and Google+ Circles to segregate my various interests, because doing it is so time-consuming and fiddly and irritating, then how can we expect people who aren’t familiar with such networks to do so? There’s a certain amount of cognitive friction involved in doing these kinds of tasks — not to mention what some call the “paradox of choice” — that makes it less likely people will do them at all.

I eventually just gave up my attempt to create a range of specific Google+ Circles, and now have one big group of everyone I am following, and one that is topic-specific. I don’t have any Facebook groups or lists at all that I use regularly. Are people really going to spend the time it takes to create groups or lists or Circles and then choose from a pull-down menu every time they want to share a piece of content? I don’t think so (even Mark Zuckerberg once said that people hate lists). And my fear is that people will share less as a result, or will turn away from these networks in confusion, or because the settings are too cumbersome.

I realize that not everyone wants to share everything, especially when it’s a photo or some personal information. But I for one enjoy seeing different aspects of the lives of people I follow on whatever social networks I belong to — I like seeing the personal photos mixed in with the business, or the jokes people use to lighten the mood. And I think the serendipity and sense of personal contact that comes from that kind of sharing is an important part of what makes the social web powerful, and the benefits that come from it.

I have nothing against people using Circles or lists or groups, or blocking off parts of their profiles if they wish. But I hope that we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture in our rush to segregate our lives into different pieces in the name of privacy.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Ed Kohler