A Matter of Personas
With Circles, I believe that Google will attempt to accomplish something critics from the blogosphere,academia, SXSW 2010 keynoter danah boyd, privacy watchdogs and others have all called on the social networking world to do: to allow our online communication to respect the same boundaries that our offline social lives do.
School and work, friends and family, the sacred and the profane; we've always been able to communicate different things to different people in different circumstances. Facebook, Twitter and other online social networks have collapsed all those contexts into one big bucket. We speak to our "friends" all at once, no matter what we might want to say to one group of people or another. And thus we often feel less comfortable than we might saying anything at all.
This fundamental discomfort has been, many people argue, a limiting factor in the growth, reach and depth of online social interactions. If that problem could be solved, there are big new ways that the online world could grow and evolve. This has been a more sophisticated understanding of privacy, not just as a public/private dichotomy but as a matter of contextual integrity of communication, that we and others have been calling on Facebook to adopt for almost two years.
The development of Circles is likely heavily influenced by the work of ex-Google social technology researcher Paul Adams. Adams has written a book called Social Circles, which will be released this Summer and he published a widely read slide deck about what is wrong with social networking: specifically the lack of respect for context and personas. (The Real Life Social Network) Adams worked on User Experience at Google for four years, but just months after publishing his influencial presentation he left Google for Facebook.