Google+ is a pretty great service. In a lot of ways it’s more of a spiritual successor to FriendFeed than it is a Facebook or Twitter “killer,” in that it makes sharing larger bodies of content and holding discussions around that content much easier, meaningful and personal. This is thanks in no small part to the social organization that Circles introduces, a concept Paul Adams (formerly of Google and now Product Manager at Facebook, somewhat ironically) introduced in his “The Real Life Social Network v2″ presentation.
Circles make it easy to logically organize your family, friends, colleagues, etc. into groups and target the content you share only to those specific people. For example, a lot of my friends are gamers, but my family doesn’t want to hear about the latest gaming trends. When I share a story like this, I can choose to just share it with my gaming buddies and not my parents. It’s perfect for these sorts of simple things.
To be fair, the concept of Circles is not unique. Facebook’s grouping functionality has been around for a long time and can be used for exactly the same purposes. The major difference with Google’s approach is that they’ve baked this concept into the very core of their product. It isn’t an afterthought, nor is it hidden behind a Preferences link two levels deep. Circles are the platform from which you do all interactions in Google+.
However, we don’t always communicate in a generic manner that can easily be targeted to social groups. Let’s take my Twitter account as an example. I have a bit over 600 people currently following me there. However, for the vast majority of them, I know nothing about what made them follow me. I have a lot of varied interests. What was it that made John Q follow me? I can’t read his mind. It never fails that when I tweet about a niche topic that really intrigues me, I’ll lose 1 or 2 followers. I’m not talking about something super polarizing like politics, just niche things like fixing a rare bug in Xcode, or patch notes for a game.
Why not let users decide what they want to hear about? Give them some control to filter their stream. Using the John Q example, let’s say he follows me on Google+ because of my gaming news, but has a real dislike of MMOs. I know he likes gaming, so he gets lumped into my Gaming circle. Simple, right? But I share a lot of MMO news. I don’t want to alienate him from the stuff that does interest him with the stuff that doesn’t.
How do we solve this?
If we look at Google+ like a blog rather than a social network (which, let’s face it, Google+’s format lends itself to the concept of a blog much more than it does a microblogging system like Twitter), we can immediately think of some filtering tools we could use. If you want to follow my blog, for example, you can choose to use a general RSS feed with everything I post, or just my programming thoughts, or just my gaming stuff, and so on. You can pick and choose. How could we implement this into a social network?
Chris Messina pioneered hash tagging: effectively a way of categorizing tweets and making them easily searchable, filterable, associable. It took off, and now Twitter supports the method natively. Many Twitter tools let you filter your stream based on these hash tags, displaying or hiding them as you see fit. If you’ve ever tried to use twitter while SXSW is going on, you no doubt already know how to take advantage of these tools.
Could Google implement support for something like this into Google+ in a manner that is simple and compatible with Circles? I think so, and I think it would fit in well without overly complicating the user experience.
On implementation idea: Google could add a second field on the share interface, beneath the Circle selection, that allowed you to define tags for the share. If I’m linking a post about System Administration Appreciation Day, for example, I could target my Tech Enthusiast circle, and tag it with sysadmin, it, office, and so on. Not everyone in my Enthusiast circle works in an office, and I’m sure some of those who do don’t share my appreciation for sysadmins, so when they see my share they could open the “Tags” menu in the footer of the post, and selectively pick terms to filter out of their stream in the future. If they chose to stop seeing shares tagged with sysadmin (“globally mute”?), my post would instantly fade out from their stream, and all future shares on the topic would no longer appear for them.
No doubt some will argue that this could be accomplished entirely using Circles, and they’re quite right, if I personally knew everyone who follows me and I knew precisely how to categorize their interests. But this makes the assumption that I do, and it’s unreasonable to assume I ever will. Likewise, as a user, I don’t want people to assume what my interest are or are not. I might harbor a secret love for YouTube cat videos (ahem), but you might not know that and forget to put me into your “lolcats r awusum” Circle. No, Circles are designed to group people based on their social connections or interests on a very generic level, and it’s unreasonable to think that anyone will want to micromanage their network to the point of filtering people into extremely niche groupings such as my previous John Q example.
Others might argue: who cares? Aren’t I thinking a bit too much into this? To many this will be a non-issue, I agree. However, to me, Google+ is a great experiment in creating a social network from a blank slate with an emphasis on clarity, choice, and organized thought, and I am already encountering instances of people I really enjoy following, but who are too noisy about topics I don’t want to hear about.
So, there’s some random, messy thoughts of mine on the issue. Talk amongst yourselves.