In his review of Google+ Farhad Manjoo compares their “Circles” feature to arranging wedding seating charts. Having to sort people into lists before you can interact with them online is annoying. But the problem isn’t lists. I like lists. I use lists. I might not be a typical user (Manjoo says that only 5% of Facebook users use this feature), but I think the problem is that there are two usage scenarios for lists and Facebook/Google emphasize the wrong one – and not very well at that.

The first scenario, the one that Facebook and Google think people want, is focused on privacy. You have baby pictures and only want to share them with relatives? Set up a “relatives” list and share your pictures with them while keeping them private from your professional contacts. The problem with this is that social networks are context specific. My sister’s boyfriend might be considered a “relative” for purposes of family dinners and sharing of photos, but not for talking about family finances and medical problems. Lists are simply too rigid and static to handle how we actually decide what information to share with whom and when.

Another problem with this scenario is the illusory nature of privacy. Like DRM on DVDs, online privacy is all about wishful thinking. Once you’ve posted something online anyone can share it with whomever they like. If you are a Congressmen who sets up a Circle of online girlfriends with which you share photos of your private parts, it is just a matter of time before someone reposts these to someone outside that Circle. It is better to treat everything online as if it was meant for public consumption. That way you are never caught by surprise.

The second scenario for lists (the one I actually use), is to use lists to organize how we consume information rather than how we share it. Twitter is good for this. All my online anthropology contacts go in my “anthropologists” list. All the economists I follow on Twitter go in my “economix” list, etc. With more and more people sharing information online it is easy to get overwhelmed. Studies have shown we find it hard to have meaningful relationships with more than 150 people, but many of us have over a thousand online “friends.” We need tools to make this new way of interacting with people more meaningful. Google and Facebook should be helping, but they’re not.

Facebook’s mobile app used to let me easily sort my main feed by the various lists I had set up, but they took this feature away. Facebook wants to control how I see my timeline. I can still access this feature via the web page, but they’ve made it difficult to do so without creating separate browser bookmarks for each list. Facebook’s approach is to try to predict what I want to read by using their own algorithms to shape my “top stories” feed. I don’t like this. There are people I am friends with on Facebook who never show up in “top stories” because Facebook has decided I don’t care that much about them. I’m not the only one irked by this. Twitter, on the other hand gets it, although their web page and official client don’t do as a good a job letting you access the list feature as some third party clients. (My favorite is the Tweetlist iPhone client.) I’m not yet sure how Google Plus’s Circle feature compares to Twitter lists – it is hard to tell when I only follow three people. One thing I like about Twitter, however, is that I can switch between my narrowly defined lists and the general timeline of everyone’s tweets. This creates an element of serendipity which I don’t see happening in Google Plus. I often discover new people this way, eventually adding my favorites to various lists. (Including a list of my favorite people on Twitter which I keep private so as not to offend anyone I’ve not included.)

But having lists is only the first step towards dealing with information overflow. I engage in a kind of information triage whereby I narrow down what information I want to consume by quickly going through my lists and favoriting those items I want to explore further. (Facebook doesn’t have something like Twitter’s “Favorites” tab where you can see all the things you’ve “liked” in Facebook. This is another reason I prefer Twitter.) I then skim my favorites, adding anything which will take some time to read to Instapaper. In effect, I’m creating for myself (with the help of my Twitter network) the best newspaper in the world.

The reason I will never pay the ridiculous amount of money the NYTimes wants for an online subscription is that my Twitter lists are a much better newspaper for me than anything the NYTimes could give me. Twitter exposes me to a much wider array of news sources than I have ever had access to before in my life – curated by people I’ve come to know and respect. There is a stupid misconception that Twitter is about what people had for breakfast. That’s there too – and it adds a nice human touch to the site, but the main reason I use it is because of the URLs included in most of the Tweets. It is still unclear to me how Google+ intends to leverage their new +1 button and how that will integrate with Google Plus’s other features. But right now it seems to me as if the Circles feature will make it harder, rather than easier, to find and discover curators who can help me navigate the huge glut of information that is the web. I know some people will find Circles useful for the privacy it purports to provide, but the web is about much more than just sharing baby pictures.

UPDATE: For more on this, see my post “Seeing Like a Social Network” on Savage Minds.