This is just the beginning

Disclaimer reminder: I currently work at Facebook and worked on Google+ up until the end of 2010. This post does not reflect anything I did at Google, or anything I’m doing at Facebook, and is simply my personal opinion about the state of the world.

Since Google+ launched last week, many people have been asking me my opinion about it. Unfortunately I can’t talk about specifics (hello, non-disclosure agreements) but I can talk broadly about the state of the world.

When it comes to representing relationships online, there are two big questions:
1. Our offline relationships are very complex. Should we try and replicate the attributes and structure of those relationships online, or will online communication need to be different?
2. If we do try and replicate the attributes of our relationships, will people take the time and effort to build and curate relationships online, or will they fall back to offline interactions to deal with the nuances?

We’re only at the beginning of trying to answer these questions. Google+ is a well designed product, but it is not “the solution” to the problem of representing complex relationships online. In fact, there probably isn’t “one solution”.

If you think about the first question above, Google+ is both trying to replicate offline social network structures (with circles) and build social network structures that are unique to the online world (with following, and with the fact that anyone can add anyone to a circle, independent of whether these people have met offline). Is this the best approach? No-one knows. If history has taught us anything, it’s that trying to predict the future is a fools game. Especially when that future is wrapped up in complex relationships and network effects. Remember, this is just the beginning.

The second question is the big unanswered one. Most user experience problems can be defined with the simple equation: Is the effort I need to go through worth the perceived benefit? Is the effort of creating circles, and managing them over time, worth the perceived benefit of sharing to those circles? Is the effort of figuring out who is in the audience of someone else’s circle worth the perceived benefit of the value derived from commenting? Again, no-one knows the answer to this question. But it’s going to be fascinating to see it play out.

Finally, it’s worth noting a trend that will make the task of representing relationships online even harder. Many fields of science are starting to discover that most of our behavior is driven by our non-conscious brain, not by our conscious brain. This refutes much of our understanding of how the world works. When we meet people, for the first time, or for the ten thousandth time, there are far too many signals for the conscious brain to take in, analyze, and compute what to do. So our non-conscious brain does the analysis for us, and delivers a feeling, which determines how we react and how we behave. It’s our non-conscious brain that will be deciding which social network succeeds and which one fails. It’s going to take most, if not all, of our lifetime to figure out what is happening in the non-conscious brain. This is just the beginning.


  1. It’s all just consciousness in action. Yogis figured it all out centuries ago.

    Have a look at patanjali’s yoga sutras, the third chapter on the powers of a developed awareness. Technology is just the out-picturing of what the mind can already do …. You will recognise in patanjali your career up til now, and what you will be doing for the rest of your life :-)

  2. Your most profound comment is “Many fields of science are starting to discover that most of our behavior is driven by our non-conscious brain, not by our conscious brain” which has many angles and implications like why tacit knowledge is more valuable than explicit knowledge so agree that its extremely difficult to represent complex relationships online.

  3. Really interesting comment about sub conscious levels and feelings related to people. I have a huge theory about this in how i’m focusing on sub conscious left-to-right brain thought-to-action using emotion with my start up, http://www.mytab. I like google circles clarification but feel its based on nurture, where as facebook is nature. Our lives are intertwined, not 100% like a facebook wall but also not isolated pockets like google+. I feel we live in the Pulp Fiction world, where everything is spinning back/forth and we dont categorize in sentences/pockets, but more with a cyclone effect of overlapping interaction. Think that, with facebook, non work friends are intertwined with my career from my wall posts/interests. Information they’d never be aware of if i isolated those friends from my full sphere life. But between google+ and facebook, the tools are allowing us to be more conscious and create stronger bridges :)

  4. [...] current Facebooker and the man who got a lot of credit regarding the recent release of Google Plus puts his thoughts to words and describes the sentiment most people have on predicting who/what will be the social network of note, if there will ever be [...]

  5. Hi Paul,

    Great stuff and it is exactly the first question that has always intrigued me.

    The way I see it, the problem is that we as users dont even know what we want and we need guys like you to figure that out. People dont know what they want until you give it to them. The online social world shouldnt be a digital facsimile of offline structures, because it can do much more. We should work along this ‘human way’ of socializing, but try to extend its possibilities and reach.

    I have the feeling that Facebook is becoming an end instead of a mean, what I argue it should be. It should be a mean to stay in touch with weak ties, and with their group messaging now be a mean to have a nice conversation with strong ties that has value. But to me (a heavy FB user), FB is increasingly becoming more an end and when that happens, the value/the experience of using FB is decreasing. The value always has to be in the other persons and not in the tool. We dont Google because we like to search for websites, we Google because we want to find that website. We shouldnt be Facebooking for the sake of social networking, but because it adds value to our relations, weak or strong. The way FB now works is that it subsumes a character of sport feels like a grind. The way we communicate via FB and the way it fosters self-censoring leads to alienation of the tie instead of enhancing it. The Groups help with that, but are too ‘closed’. I havent looked into Google+ yet, should do that soon.

  6. Paul, I’m working on a post now related to Google + and will link your excellent piece. What I miss a lot in Facebook that Plus has made easy is Friend lists. I hope you can pass along that bringing friends lists back to the front of Facebook (where groups live now) would go a long way to making it easier to find people and relevant information. In my opinion, of course.

  7. These questions are not as unanswered as you present them; “circles” are not a new idea in social networks.

    I am not sure when LiveJournal created “custom friend groups”, but they have been there for quite a while, and are very very similar to Google+ circles. (See for documentation, noting particularly the “things you can do with filters” list at the top of the page.)

    Combine this with Dreamwidth’s innovation on the LiveJournal codebase of separating one’s “Circle” — even the name is nothing new! — into “subscription” and “access” halves, and there is quite a lot of prior art in having this kind of grouping, which has been around for multiple years and so there’s quite a lot of information on how people use it and how much. Your claim that “no-one knows the answer to this question” is far from true; we have years of data with large user-bases.

    Personally, I don’t have data; I only have anecdotes, and the anecdotes I have are that filters in both directions feel pretty much critical for me. I also find the “trying to replicate offline relationships” statement to be quite false. Perhaps you have been misled by the default circle names on Google+, but what they actually represent in practice for me are variations on “these are the people I want to share this information with” and “these are the people whose posts I want to read at this sort of time”, both of which are far from offline-specific.

  8. Nicholas Berardi

    I like most of what you are saying with the subconscious. It makes a lot of sense to me when I think about how Facebook turned into something that lost value to me. Perhaps my interactions on Facebook became too conscious. Instead of the natural conversation between my friends, a lot of the interaction became forced. Facebook became more of a job than a social device for me. For example, there was a company that encouraged me to post on their wall to create more visibility of their product and promotions. While I realize that this is not necessarily a bad thing, I felt like I started to get caught up in some weird interactions that were totally unnatural. I don’t feel that it was because I was bad at social networking, but it was just too forced sometimes. On the other hand, there were entities that I enjoyed posting about their product because I actually did want that organization to know my feelings about what they are doing and I would reply to their comments almost without thinking about it at all. By all means these situations have similarities and differences depending on my connection to the entity, but in general I could notice a difference between the feelings I was having toward several connections, which seemed to evolved in sequence with Facebook’s ongoing evolution. Philip Man, I totally agree. I think that Facebook turned into many more things than it was when I initially began using it. Looking back on “wall-to-wall” conversations of mine several years ago, I really enjoy them, which seems funny for me to say about a couple of wall posts. I still had some good things coming from my Facebook use, but the amount of things that I felt were meaningless and a waste of my time began to grow. The increase of uses of Facebook caused my activity to change, and while I believe that change is good, it wasn’t a change that kept me interested in the product personally.
    Anyways, I made my own change to move on and have been exploring new things that are less structured. I think that I am finding myself to be much more organic than the later stages of my Facebook use.
    I’m not sure if this is the answer to your questions, and like you said there may not be a correct answer… But I think that we should try to replicate some of the attributes of our offline relationships in our online relationships (and while we are online of course we should be our selves, true blue). But I think the internet can only be a tool to a certain extent. We can never replicate ourselves exactly onto the internet. We are social beings and many of our social interactions can be transposed onto networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google. When it comes to our most complex and intimate feelings and conversations, however, the internet may not always be the right place for these. The internet may not be the place for a lot of things as a matter of fact.
    Luckily I think we are capable of deciding the places where we perform our various social interactions.
    Lastly, I know this is obvious, but I feel like it is important to mention that I feel some of our thoughts, especially the deepest ones deal with both the subconscious and the conscious. At some points in time our subconscious and conscious brain are working together, rather than separately. I’m not sure how to best describe this, but I will certainly think about this article more as I go socialize at my family reunion…
    Thanks for the thoughts of this article Paul.

  9. “Is the effort of creating circles, and managing them over time, worth the perceived benefit of sharing to those circles?” It’s only half the question if not the wrong question. I think Circles will b used much more as a info inflow filter/manager rather than an outflow one. People talk big deal about privacy. But in reality info overload is a much bigger or at least much more urgent problem. Looking from another perspective, ppl don’t care much about polluting other ppl’s Stream especially knowing they now have Circles, they’d rather get their Shares as far as possible by posting them to Public which also happens to save effort (w the current default), but on the inflow side every1 wants their own Stream to be well “Circled” n easy to pick&eat.

  10. So You(google) are serious about being BigBrother !

  11. This is a remarkable post, reminding some of the people that predicting something might be impossible. Especially when it comes to cultural developments and/or technology as well as social interactions. You can never know what people make out of it! (named “double contingency” by Niklas Luhmann)

    You ask some really interesting questions which have to be answered. And they have to be answered by every single social network in its own way. We have a lot of networks answering them in a different, unique way and I think that’s the way it goes: People deal in a different way with their contacts. So everyone finds his/her own way to use the networks online (that doesn’t say ONLY one service at a time!).

    But I think there’s a more personal question that comes to my mind: How did it come that you went your way from Google to Facebook? I don’t want to imply that’s a bad way to walk, but I’m just curious. I would always expect the other way round, as Google was/is building up a service – which implies they need newhires.
    If this question is to personal or the answer contains undisclosed information you are not allowed to give, it’s fine. :)

  12. Paul, I’d love your thoughts about a different approach to managing online connections — tapping into the Interest Graph. I wrote a blog about it here: Do you agree? Disagree?


  13. Every widely adopted online replica of the way we manage our offline relationships, tend to shape the way we think about our relationships too ;)

  14. [...] I’m Rooting For Google+ This Is Just The Beginning Tom Anderson Of Myspace Weighs In Why Google+ Will Take Half Of The Social Network Market From [...]

  15. [...] Paul Adams (who worked on G+ before defecting to Facebook) shares some generalised thoughts on Circles: This is just the beginning – [...]

  16. [...] This is just the beginning "We’re only at the beginning of trying to answer these questions. Google+ is a well designed product, but it is not “the solution” to the problem of representing complex relationships online. In fact, there probably isn’t “one solution”." [...]

  17. [...] آدامز در وبلاگش نوشته است. مقاله اصلی را می توانید در اینجا بخوانید. پائول فعلا در فیس بوک کار می کند و پیش از این [...]

  18. I wonder, when new relationships are formed on-line, how much of the unconscious brain plays a role really? We can argue there are much less signals and complexity than in the ‘real’ world. As such it’s the conscious brain more in control. Making it ‘easier’ for us to connect.

    So maybe question 1 is not should we, but do we want to? I’m sure there are two different audiences, those who prefer simplicity of online relationships and those who miss authenticity because of lack of extra attributes and ‘feeling’. Not sure if those two will ever marry up?

  19. pete griffiths

    Paul – you pose the question well and have a healthy respect for what must for now be considered to be sui generis. If I may, I would throw another unknown into the mix, one that I suspect is very important but which I have not yet seen discussed in the debates about Google+ — the fact that different cultures have different attitudes to online identity and privacy. This may change in the future but right now there seem to be real differences. Asian cultures such as those of Japan and Korea result in different behavior on SNs. I would be curious to know what if any thought you have had time to this thorny question.

  20. [...] is still the beginning. This post written by Paul Adams, a Facebook employee who recently worked on Google+ states it pretty clearly; we’re only at [...]

  21. Thanks for all the comments folks. Great discussion! Here are some responses:

    @Heddi Definitely interesting to think about nature versus nurture. With any social software, including Facebook, social norms develop over time. Sometimes these are more powerful than any UI or feature we build.

    @Philip Good feedback. The goal of Facebook is not to be an end in itself, but to be the container of information about your friends that you care about. We’re constantly working on making it better.

    @Brooks You’re right in the sense that the concept of groups/circles/communities is almost as old as humanity. What is unanswered is whether people at a mass scale will use tools to categorize their friends. Livejournal was not a mass communication tool so I don’t think it’s a strong analogy.

    @Nicholas What I’m getting from your comment is a feeling that online communication tools should support offline communication. At a high level, I agree with this notion. Nothing replaces face to face interaction.

    @Yinan. You’re right – circles are useful as a filter on incoming communication as well as a means to share to specific groups. I’m not sure I agree that people don’t care about “spamming” other peoples’ streams. Much research on the topic concludes the opposite.

    @Addliss It’s probably better for me not to get into why I left Google :)

    @Daniel. Nice post. I agree that there is much work to be done, and great opportunity, in the Interest Graph.

    @Pete I have thought about cultural differences. While there are many subtleties, and they are important, basic social behavior amongst humans is constant all over the world. What is remarkable is that we are born with a set of norms and expectations, and these are consistent from culture to culture. I highly recommend checking out The Social Animal by David Brooks.

  22. [...] Adams will be remembered in history as an original curator of a theory of the fundamental definition of the “social network,” and his bird’s eye view of social (unconstrained by the leading model in place, i.e. Facebook) is transformative and rare.  To read directly from Adams himself, see his post on July 3rd about Google+. [...]

  23. [...] Google’s ideas around Circles can be partially attributed to former employee Paul Adams, who gave a compelling presentation about social contexts last year. He left Google for Facebook several months later, but wrote a new blog post that asks “two big questions”: [...]

  24. Why is it when someone’s 15 minutes are in play, he feels qualified to tell everyone else about the world and how it works. Duh, thanks for figuring everything out for us , duh…

    Be more concerned with where you will be for eternity. The one Church of the Bible. We are all just passing through and no one gets out alive. Church of Christ, not technology, is the solution for all the questions. Check it out or don’t say you never heard it.

  25. [...] Seems I not alone on this. Paul Adams – one of the Google+ architects, now with Facebook – highlights some of this conscious vs. subconscious stuff in his latest post. [...]

  26. Paul – excellent post and cogent questions.
    The thing that’s bothering me aboiut Google+ is that I’d like to be asked if it’s ok for someone to follow me, as I am on LinkedIn and Facebook. Otherwise, I feel like I’m being stalked.

    Yes, I see that I can block people, but i’d rather be asked before, rather than after the fact.

  27. Paul,

    Very interesting comments. I actually had the circle of friends vision in 2004 and created what I believe was the first iteration of a social network based around different types of relationships. Anyways here’s a write-up of it if interested in my take on it:

  28. Paul,
    very nice.Thanks

  29. [...] This is just the beginning – Are you thinking inside out? [...]

  30. Paul, thanks for the short post!

    I wonder how you see the circles representing or overcoming the major cultural barrier — the language? Do you see people creating different circles per language group (N topics and M languages yielding N x M circles, and even more management)?

    Yet many things can be shared without language considerations like most pics.

    Do you see the posts will get multi-lingual facet, allowing you to write the text for different groups? Do you see the tool helping, by noting “most of people will regard this message as noise unless you adjust circles or add versions in other languages”? Will the tools some how note which languages a user seems to be able to read, or more important, appreciate?

    Or shall we all start to use just English in near future for most communication?

  31. [...] Go. ¿Social Circles? : Si queréis saber un poco más, el propio Paul Adams ha escrito en su blog This is just the beginning, sobre Google+ y lo que le parece a él, que trabajó en el proyecto hasta finales de 2010. [...]

  32. [...] pero tengo algunas opiniones acerca del boom de Google+. Les recomiendo la lectura de los posts This is just the beginning y Why I left Google. What happened to my book. What I work on at Facebook, publicados en el blog de [...]

  33. [...] I’ve shared Paul Adams’ presentation on the blog before, and I was really looking forward to read what he said about Google Plus because Circles is exactly what he was talking about almost a year ago. Here is the post with his thoughts on Google Plus. [...]

  34. Hello Paul! Any comments on how the languages and circles would play well together? The problem seems quite a bit harder on the surface as the attributes are not orthogonal and while they correlate a lot, there are plenty of outliers: people knowing multiple languages, but still preferring some, but only when discussing about certain subjects or topics, or with certain subjects.

  35. [...] like bumping into an ex – girlfriend’.   And added a recent blog post:  This is just the beginning.  I can’t wait to see where it all [...]

  36. [...] to various sources, all of those drastic changes we see around us are just signals of something much larger and [...]

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  39. I’ve just started gettign into Plus, but I don’t like how they make it hard to find people to connect to. I use to find people, I think it’s a feature Google needs to impliment. They say it’s going to be the next Facebook, time will tell I guess.