On Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, it’s all about the feed. Tidbits of information, usually about current happenings, move down the screen at a stock ticker’s pace, giving off an infectious energy. It’s an energy that not only keeps us returning to these sites, clamoring for more, but one that also dictates what we share and with whom we choose to share it.

These massive social sites are today’s fast-paced, online cities. Inside their walls we are compelled to create large networks of connections. We watch as updates move through our feed, and we add to the communal stream of consciousness, knowing that what we share has a shelf life of mere minutes. Then it’s buried, and our social feeds continue to churn and deliver the next batch of evermore recent updates.

So where’s my online country retreat, where calm inspires reflection? Where the pace is slowed and I can mingle with a smaller, more intimate group? We learn so much from each other when we share and connect. But, when we are connected to a broad group, we tend to share things that are easily digested by a broad audience. The insider details are lost.

The big three social networks — Facebook, Twitter, and now Google+ — all encourage maximum connections. They also prioritize only the most recently shared information. As a result, we seem to share similarly across all three. These sites encourage a certain breed of information sharing, but this one breed, popular though it is, is not the end-all, be-all of online social interactions — it’s just a singular mode of expression.

There is room for more.


Are Circles the Answer?


Google+ got us all thinking about sharing differently with different people. G+ placed its “Circles” right between us and a connection. Google’s thesis — that we share differently with different groups offline, and should therefore do the same online — makes a lot of sense. Even Facebook bought into the argument, and recently added new sharing controls similar to the G+ Circles. But it’s not just whom we’re sharing with that affects what we choose to share. Where we are, what else is “happening” around us, and other context cues also help shape our online show-and-tell.

Sharing using G+ Circles or Facebook’s new controls makes me feel like I’m standing in one open space, alternately shouting and whispering to reach different people. As a user, it’s awkward to share certain family-specific information in the same place that I’m sharing with colleagues or friends. I need to remain acutely aware of who is in each Circle, and put aside my fears that I may have accidentally dropped someone in the wrong bucket (something I’ve done more than once). Perhaps this is why casual observation seems to indicate that people are rarely sharing differently to different Circles anyway.

More importantly, just because I have family and colleagues neatly carved out on G+ and Facebook doesn’t mean that I have family-specific or work-specific interactions. Instead, colleagues, family, friends and followers alike all seem to share the same types of information: interesting links, recent photos and short updates. The fact that all three big social networks inspire a very similar brand of sharing has everything to do with the fact that they are nearly identical, at this point. They are quasi-public (friends of friends is a big group) or public, with information homogeneously dumped into a chronological listing topped by a small, blank input field.


Focused Social Networks


Focused social networks, on the other hand, provide contextual clues and specific features to inspire a custom type of sharing. LinkedIn is a social network with a very specific purpose. Logging into LinkedIn is like walking into a job fair or a networking event. You put your game face on, and only share information relevant to your career aspirations or recruiting needs. And you only connect with other professionals. It’s the ultimate “Circle.” As a result, it encourages a specific type of sharing and a specific type of connection.

It would be meaningless to write a recommendation for a former colleague on Facebook, Twitter or G+. It would have no lasting impact because it would quickly disappear down the feed. LinkedIn organizes information around an individual’s resume, and thus, information attached to that resume, like a recommendation, lives on and can serve its purpose long after it was initially shared.

LinkedIn might be the current king of the focused social networks, but there are plenty of others slowly gaining traction, or at least trying to. Athlinks.com is a social network for endurance athletes. As a runner, Athlinks is my “running buddies” circle. This social network automatically imports results from running races, triathlons and the like, and makes it easy to share information about my latest running shoe purchase, or the absurdly long race for which I plan to train. It even generates a list of my local “rivals.” It boasts custom functionality that supports a specific type of sharing with a specific social circle. Its functionality, however, wouldn’t have a home within a big, one-size-fits-all networking site.

Other focused social networking sites are designed for a variety of other common, real-world social circles, providing relevant context and functionality. Some are full sites, others mobile apps, and plenty live in tandem with the big networks — Facebook apps, for example.


Room for Diversity


Online and off, the place we’re in or the site we’re on plays a role in setting the mood and tone of our conversations. The place itself even helps set the tone for who you should bring along with you.

We can foster a variety of different social interactions online if we provide the unique tools to support them. There is room online for more diversity in what we share. Once we move beyond the current formula, we can connect in new, unique ways online — all with the goal of getting to know each other even better.

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