Stephen Baker

The Boost
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Google+ and the Numerati

July 11, 2011Tribes

The first circle I filled on Google+ was easy. Family. I dragged and dropped different family members into the circle, and I guess some day I could send them all an update or a photo. Family's easy, because it's defined. But... Are my in-laws interested in the same stuff as my sisters and my kids? And won't nieces and nephews be bored by some of the middle-aged traffic? Hmmm. Maybe I should have subgroups in family.

Then comes work. What do my old colleagues from the papers in Caracas and El Paso have in common with my BusinessWeek friends? They're journalists. That's something. But if one of my messages is BW-specific, they probably won't be interested. Then there are divisions within BW itself. I could think of it this way: 1) the people I had lunch with, 2) the people I probably should have had lunch with, and 3) those I'd never have lunch with. Circles and more circles.

Grouping people is difficult. This is what the Numerati deal with all the time. Should Mercedes buyers be grouped with country-club members or European vacationers? The quants work out the numbers. But there's a key difference. If a Mercedes buyer who hates golf gets a come-on from a country club, he's not offended. It's just one more banner on the screen or piece of junk mail to throw out.

Friendships don't work that way. If I send out a mailing that is appropriate for 78% of the people in a certain circle, 22% of my contacts feel that I'm treating them as names on a bulk mail list. And they're right.

So what's the answer? Google would love it if each one of us would carefully delineate our friendships in hundreds of small and overlapping circles. They want us to lay out our social grafs in exquisite detail. That way they can go to school on our relationships and teach their machines to target our friends with the same precision that we're striving for.

I don't think I'll bother. The more I analyze my friends, the more differences pop up among them. This isn't to say that I won't send them all a promotion for my next book. But that's a bulk mailing for publicity and labeled as such. However, it's really hard--impossible, I'd say--to fit friendships into boxes (or circles). I can imagine forwarding one article that would appeal to three former BusinessWeek colleages, two from Caracas, my Spanish-speaking nephew and two friends from Spain. I'll address it manually. I see no other way. 

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