"If you want to control privacy and attention – just put them in a group" seems to be the answer that most of the socials media (and other) sites are moving towards.
Each of them has a subtly, or even dramatically, different way of implementing groups, but fundamentally they are all trying to do the same thing.
The basic philosophy is that we can put people into different buckets and the bucket is then linked to different levels of privacy and attention.
The main reason for the buckets is that they provide a way of simplifying the administration of the system.
In most instances the group configuration that most people use is quite simple. Flickr, for instance, doesn’t even let you create your own groups, it gives you three – contacts, contacts that are friends, contacts that are family – that’s it. People need to fit into one of these buckets if you are going to control what pictures people can see. Google+ has circles which are nicely animated, but basically do the same thing. You can have as many Circles as you like, and you can put people into those circles in order to control what people see and what you see about people. Twitter’s notion of a group is the list, but they only help attention management, they don’t do anything for privacy.
There are a number of challenges with this situation.
The first challenge is the most obvious issue – there is no way to manage groups across the various services. If I want a family bucket on Flickr and Facebook I need to create it, and administer a group on Facebook and another group on Flickr. If you really wanted to get organised about the groups that you use you would spend a significant amount of time administering all of them.
Another challenge, and the most fundamental one, is that socially a group is quite a fluid thing, and the fluid has different densities. My example here is an event with a group of friends. The group for the event starts off as the group of friends who are invited. The group related to the event doesn’t stay like that though, as people choose whether they are coming, or not, the group changes, but it doesn’t change in the same way for everyone. Some people who are not attending may still want to be told about the group as the event occurs, others don’t want to know anything. If we are running the event for the group of friends we will know the difference between the people to keep in the loop, and the people to leave out. The members of the group have changed, but so has the type of connection that people have with the group.
Groups might help us in administration terms, but I don’t think that groups really give us what we need.
Also see: Privacy and Attention Dimensions