I think that solving the dual problems of privacy and noise in social networking applications are very difficult. Personally I don’t think any of the major players (Facebook, Twitter, Google+) have tackled these problems entirely successfully. I did a little thinking and if I built a social network today, here’s how I would tackle the graph.

Let’s say that I just signed up for the network. As part of the sign up process I would be asked to create Topics that I might post about. By default there would be two topics pre-populated: Personal and Work. In addition, the app would suggest that I add other topics that I might be interested and give examples such as Technology or Fashion. It would also say “hey don’t worry, you can always create topics while you post”.

So far so good. Now, whenever I share something I’m encouraged to select topics from those I have already posted about. I can also create a new topic on the fly just by typing its name. “Golly gee, this sounds an awful lot like Google’s Circles” you might be thinking if you were a 1950s era television character. Wait for it, here comes the payoff.

Now I want to connect to people on the network. When I click “Follow” I’m greeted with a dialog box that says “For which topics do you want to follow X?” and presents me with a list of all of the topics that X has posted about (or I can say “all”). For my close family members I follow all topics, for friends I follow their “Personal” topic, for coworkers I follow their “Work” topic and for everyone else I follow the topics that I think I’ll enjoy reading from them, maybe “Funny” or “Ruby” or any number of other things.

This is the best solution I’ve thought of to the “noise” problem with social networks. Right now I pretty much use Twitter for work and, well, I don’t really use Facebook much but if I did it would be for personal stuff. I don’t want to bore my friends with programming observations and I don’t want to bore my coworkers with personal observations. This system makes me certain that anyone looking at my posts has pro-actively decided that they are interested in hearing from me about that.

The final piece of this puzzle is privacy. I would also have the ability to create private topics that require my approval before someone can follow me on. When someone subscribes to “all” of my topics they can check a box to request permission for private topics as well, which I can approve or deny on an individual basis. Private topics are not explicitly listed out nor are they revealed when I post to them (in this way private topics are much like Circles).

There it is, my best attempt to describe a system that maximizes privacy control, minimizes noise, and creates as small a burden as possible. The only time that this requires “work” is that I need to tag each post I make with topics, and when I follow someone I have to decide which topics I want to follow them about.


Here are some of the advantages that I see to a system like the one described above:

  • I believe that this solves the noise problem better than any existing system. Being able to subscribe to a subset of a user’s posts allows for specialized content without alienating followers who are interested in something else.
  • Brands would be able to leverage this to their advantage as well. I could follow my favorite brands, blogs, etc. but only on the types of stories that would interest me.
  • Gets us a little closer to “one network to rule them all” instead of needing to create a dichotomy between our personal and public lives.
  • Since I’m encouraged to tag every post I make, lots of semantic data can be gathered about posts and used to make content discovery and other serendipity work on the system.

Of course, there are drawbacks as well, some surmountable some less so:

  • The biggest problem is that people have to tag their posts accurately or none of this matters. It requires more work when I share and friction there is definitely a problem.
  • What happens when people create new topics? I would imagine something like the Twitter interactions pane that would say “X posted about new topic Y, do you want to follow it?”, but this would have to be tuned to be user friendly.
  • Users may feel tempted to follow all topics just out of fear of “missing something.”

I’m putting this out there because I’m both wondering if anything like it exists and if there are huge glaring problems with it that I’m not considering. If this isn’t the right model for social, what is?

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Michael Bleigh



Michael Bleigh

Firebase engineer, web platform diehard

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