In Defense Of Separate But Equal

I love Twitter. The ease of use of communicating with people you don’t know (and in all likelihood will never meet) is unparalleled. Throw in the fact that you can communicate and argue and discuss things without friending each other like on Facebook, and you have a perfect system wherein you can create and forget relationships immediately. Immensely useful.

Twitter however, has one problem. This is a problem that I find all social networks have. People have different groups of friends. These groups all have something in common. Social Glue. This is the glue that holds the relationship together. This glue is great for that group, but to another group of friends that you are a part of, this glue is completely unrelated to why you are friends. Say you have a group of friends from work. What you have in common is the series of ups and downs at work. This is not the same as the group you knew from school, from your family or from your days playing sports. If you share something about your boss, with the intention that your friends from work see it, then you will write one thing. This changes when you realize that not only will your coworkers see it, but also the people from your assorted groups that have no knowledge of your work. This forces your writing to change, most of the time for the worse.

This is unfair to all of the other groups you are a part of. What you say to your coworkers could be hysterical. Some of the best work you have ever written. The problem is when you realize that your family will see it. Or, worse still, the group of people you are obligated to be friends with. Such as your boss. So what you originally wrote as a witty communique to a select group of people, is now available to everyone. So you quickly go to edit this, so as not to offend a select group of people. This then helps the group of people who would be offended, but the fact that your joke is no longer as funny is unfair to the group of people you originally intended to read it.

This problem isn’t limited to the quick and witty jokes/insights that you share on Facebook. This problem applies to all content equally. Checking into a restaurant when you are supposed to be at a family reunion? Not a chance. Photos of that night in Vegas? Not if the human resources department at the prospective workplace will see it. Opinion on the current political cycle? Chance of offending people who have no political relationship with you, but will see it anyway. Links to a comic you thought was funny? The boss might see that as childish. Each of these scenarios is normal, and the problems that arise are equally normal.

It turns out, that this problem isn’t one-way. Not only is it a problem in the creator-to-consumer relationship, but also consumer-from-creator relationship. Not only is there a risk of offending people you associate with, but there is the fact that just because I work with you doesn’t mean that I care what you are doing on the weekend. Just because I value your professional opinion, it does not mean that I care at all what you think of human rights. In fact, chances are that I couldn’t care less.

Which brings me to my problem with Twitter. One of the primary ways that people use Twitter is to share links. It allows you to say 100 characters about a topic, and then post the link for if people want to read more. This is very useful as you can handle a little bit of information, but if you want more, then you can read more. This is the simplest form of the problem outlined above.

Let’s look at an example. I follow Dave Winer. He is a fairly intelligent guy. I don’t follow him because he is who he is. Instead, I follow him because of his experience with computer science and the evolution of technology. I value his opinions on programming, latest technologies and the history of computer science. It is relevant to me, and his opinion is well-informed and normally correct. Dave is also political. I find no problem with this. (I wish more people would get involved in politics.) The problem I have with him sharing his political opinions on Twitter, is that I couldn’t care less what he thinks of the president, republicans or the tea party movement. But due to the fact that Twitter has no filtering mechanism, and all I know about the link he posts is that he thinks it is important, I am stuck. Either I click on the link and waste time figuring out if it is about technology (which I then pay attention to) or politics (which I disregard immediately), or I take the nuclear option and unfollow him. Neither is an especially appealing option.

This isn’t just Dave Winer. This is a problem I have with many people whose opinions I value in a specific sphere. John Gruber is another one I can think of. This doesn’t only apply to technologists who write about politics, but also the opposite. I follow Harry Reid and Michelle Bachmann. I want to know what they think on the political issues of the day. I don’t care what they think of technology. At all. They are normally uniformed and their opinions are completely useless to me. Harsh, but true.

By this point, you are all thinking that I like to complain. You would be 100% correct, complaining is just a step in my process of thinking. The next step is when I come up with a solution. The solution? A social network that is split into groups. Groups that are separate but equal. On request, they can overlap, and they are aware of each others existence, but they remain separate. I also want this to be simple. Something that doesn’t need to have a complicated implementation to work. It should happen automatically.

How would this work? Simply. When you follow someone, or accept their friend request, you outline how you know them. You are given a list of choices for how you know them. Work, school, celebrity, etc. You choose one, and this becomes the primary reason you want to be friends with them. Say you have a friend that you work with. You specify that you know them from work, or from a specific network. This person then shares things that are directed at that specific network. You value their opinion, and you read what they say that is related to your relationship. Then they post something about what they did over the weekend. But instead of having to read it and then ignore it, it just doesn’t show up.

This gets complicated for the social networking platform itself. It requires that an analysis of each tweets or status update is performed. This analysis machine determines what sphere this is related to, and then shares it with that specific sphere.
This shouldn’t be an unobtainable goal. My view on social networks is that they should be a virtual reflection of real-life interaction. In real life we do all of this automatically. If we are around a group of friends from college, we will automatically talk about one thing. The same is true for all of the other groups of people. It is automatically filtered: we don’t even think about it. So it should be on social networks.

There is one last part that should be considered. The group of friends that are universal. These are the 10 or 15 people that you have known for a very long time, shared struggles with and whose every opinion you value. These are the most important people to you. And this is a mutually respected relationship. These people would form your core circle, and there would be no filter on sharing between you and the other person. This is just a small part of the way the network is laid out, but it is an important part.

If a network was to implement this, I would be very grateful. Gone are the days of self-limitation. I could share whatever comes to mind, and then the relevant people would read it. The days of separate but equal can be here again. Happy days!

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