While reading Kevin Cheng’s piece titled, ‘Can we ever digitally organize our friends?‘, I started off by answering that question from my perspective – No.

But what interested me more is not the organizing part of it; even though that is the topic of the times since Google+ landed in our lives. What bothers me more is the active vs. passive nature of our connections and communications.

If you are born in the 70s, you may have gone through more active communication channels and had more of active connections. Active tools like face to face meeting/talking and telephone worked alongside what was the only passive channel at that time – snail mail. Active channels perhaps bring out the real you – you hardly had time to plan your response and had to respond in real time. But, thankfully, you were doing it with one person, at a time, mostly.

Snail mail allowed you that rare luxury of assimilating your thoughts and articulating it carefully and we all know snail mail has resulted in some wonderfully written letters.

Now, in 2011, most of our social media tools are purported to be real time and active, but are surprisingly as passive as they could ever be. Think about it – you could respond to that query @mention’ed to you or Facebook status update posted on your wall when you want to. There is no compulsion that you need to respond immediately. What perhaps leads you to respond in real time is the aura created around all these tools that they are real time. They are real time only if you assume they should be. Honestly, they could be the snail mail’s version, online. From this point of view, I love how LinkedIn helps me accumulate passive professional connections – you collect those and also have a way to consistently stream your professional thoughts.

Earlier, we bothered when an email went answered. Now, it is a given – we’re busy and will respond when we can or when we have something worth responding to. (Though New York Times showcases a lot of people who are still bothered by it – when will they understand that email, as a tool, has nothing to do with a response or a lack of it – it has always been the person on the other end. I respond because I hold the sender of that email in some respect/value…or I don’t!). The same happens in Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Access is not a problem these days – we get updated in real time of a conversation waiting for us on Twitter or Facebook via smartphones. What we do with them is where the active vs. passive context kicks in.

If I were to organize my connections on say, Google+, I would perhaps have just 2 circles – Active and Passive. Active circle members are those who I genuinely care for, whether or not I have met them in real life. Passive circle members are those who I assume – quite selfishly – can wait for my time and attention. It is not really their fault, but just the level of evolution of our relationship.

The question, however, is why Google intended to create the Circles concept in the first place. A pressing reason is perhaps privacy – they wanted to ensure that we are able to share specific items with specific groups of people. This does not work at all, at any level, with me personally. If I were to share a secret with someone, I’d rather use direct, one-to-one communication tools. Sending them an email, at least to me, implies that I would rather this conversation in private. If the content of my communication is worth sharing with the larger world, I’d choose a many-to-many communication tool, like say, Twitter. Who are we really kidding when we think we are sharing something with a specific set of people that we so carefully collected in a circle? Aren’t we forgetting the networked nature of online groups where anybody could know anybody else?

But you could also argue about appropriateness of content for select groups. For example, some people following me on Twitter may be doing so for the social media links and thoughts I share, while some could be following for my more personal updates/tweets. I see that logic, but I’m way too busy in real life to start operating like a niche television channel for some people. I’m just me – an embodiment of assorted interests that spans a lot of themes and topics. So, if some Douglas Adams fan follows me online and finds only a rare occasional Douglas Adams related update from me, tough luck – that’s really me in real life as well. Instead of segregating my connections online to help them with my thoughts relevant to their interests, I’d rather spend time in airing them out in public and let people take what they want. This is where the passive connection part comes in handy – I passively follow a lot of people for some of their thoughts, but their whole self doesn’t interest me. And I’m completely ok with that – that’s their life they are leading and some part of it seems interesting to me. Why can’t that relationship stay on that level?

So, if I were to simplify this Circles business on Google+, it may apply to all online networks as well. There are just 2 states everywhere. You have an active online relationship with someone…or it is passive. And, you have a thought (or a photo/video) inside your head…or you have it for the world to see, online. So, if I were to share a picture of my daughter online, it is to share the joy of having her as my daughter. I’d rather send that photo to select family members via email if I was too bothered about the kind/number of people who may end up seeing it if I posted it online, on a social network.

From this point of view, I believe Twitter is the only one that uncomplicates this entire social and network business. You are either public or private – you speak to yourself, or to the world outside. And you speak when you want to, or when life permits you the time…not when you are spoken to. That works for me – everything else is complicating my online experience, to increase time spent on those networks and perhaps displaying some ads to me.

Photo courtesy, this website.

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