Circles and Groups

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Dhanji Prasanna worked at Google on Wave and then, after it was cancelled, on Google+, for a short while, where he developed his own perspective on circles.

A few years ago, before the CEO cared a whit about social networking or identity, a Google User Experience researcher named Paul Adams created a slide deck called the Real Life Social Network. In a very long and well-illustrated talk, he makes the point that there is an impedence mismatch between what you share on facebook and your interactions in real life. So when you share a photo of yourself doing something crazy at a party, you don’t intend for your aunt and uncle, workmates or casual acquaintances to see it. But facebook does not do a good job of making this separation. This, in essence, is what the slide deck says and his point is made with great amounts of detail and insight.

So when Google began its social effort in earnest, the powers-that-be seized upon Paul’s research and came up with the Circles product. This was to be the core differentiator between Google+ (then codenamed Emerald Sea) and facebook.

As part of induction into Emerald Sea, my team got the 30-minute pitch from the Circles team. I listened politely, all the while rolling-my-eyes in secret at their seemingly implausible naivete. By then I was also growing increasingly frustrated at Google’s sluggish engineering culture. I have previously described how the toolchain is not well-suited to fast, iterative development and rapid innovation. I asked the obvious question — “While I agree that Circles is a very compelling feature, this slide deck is public. Surely someone at Facebook has seen it, and it won’t take them long to copy it?”

I was met with a sheepish, if honest look of resignation. They knew the danger of this, but were counting on the fact that facebook wouldn’t be able to change something so core to their product, at least not by the time Emerald Sea got to market.

I laughed, disbelieving. Facebook has a hacker culture, they’re only a handful of engineers, and they develop with quick, adaptable tools like PHP. Especially when compared with the slow moving mammoths we were using at Google. (By that time, 200+ engineers over 3 months had produced little more than ugly, bug-ridden demos, and everyone was fretting about the sure-to-fail aggressive timeline.)

Sure enough, I watched as techcrunch published leak after leak of Facebook going into lockdown for a secret project. Hinted at being an overhaul of their social graph, a new groups system, and many other things. On my side of the fence, engineers were increasingly frustrated. Some leaving Emerald Sea for other projects and some even leaving for Facebook. I had the impression that Paul Adams was not being heard (if you’re not an engineer at Google, you often aren’t). Many were visibly unhappy with his slide deck having been published for all to see (soon to be released as a book). I even heard a rumor that there was an attempt to stop or delay the book’s publication.

I have no idea if this last bit was true or not, but one fine day Paul Adams quit and went to Facebook. I was convinced that this was the final nail in the coffin. Engineers outside Emerald Sea — a cynical bunch at the best of times — were making snide comments and writing off the project as a dismal failure before it even launched.

Then it happened — Facebook finally released the product they’d been working on so secretly, their answer to Paul’s thesis. The team lead at Facebook even publicly tweeted a snarky jab at Google. Their product was called Facebook Groups.

I was dumbstruck. Was I reading this correctly? I quickly logged on and played with it, to see for myself. My former colleagues had started a Google Wave alumni group, and I even looked in there to see if I had misunderstood. But no — it seemed that Facebook had completely missed the point. There was no change to the social graph, there was no real impetus to encourage people to map their real-life social circles on to the virtual graph, and the feature itself was a under a tab sitting somewhere off to the side.


  1. Borepatch says:

    That slide deck is stunning.

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