Daniel Westheide

on making software

Google+ Circles: The Swiss-Army Knife of Social Networking

Yesterday, only one day after Google+ was announced, I got an invite and so became one of the lucky people who can participate in the field test of this new set of social networking tools, labelled by many as “Google’s Facebook killer”. My first impression is a very positive one: The user interface is much more tidy than Facebook’s, and altogether it appears to be very well thought out1, taking a user-centered approach to design. For me, Google+ comes very close to how I want a social networking site to be, and as Gina Trapani pointed out, Google has apparently learned a lot from the mistakes made with Buzz and Wave.

Personally, I think that Circles is the most important feature of Google+. Every individual has got multiple identities, and managing them has been either too difficult or impossible in existing social networking or microblogging platforms. While Circles is definitely not perfect, it makes the management of what you want to share with whom a core part of the application. Both Facebook and Twitter are problematic at best in this regard.

In the following, I’m going to describe some typical problems I have experienced with Facebook and Twitter, and how Circles can help to solve them. In a future article, I will elaborate on the shortcomings I see with the current shape of Circles.

Yes, I sort of know you, but I like my privacy!

Maybe this is just me, but this is something I regularly stumble upon at Facebook. Someone I know wants to add me as a friend. It would be impolite to deny the friend request, so I accept. But I don’t want that person to read about everything I write. That stuff targeted at people that are much closer to me. Creating a group and putting such people in there is not that intuitive in Facebook. I want to be stupid! Doing this must be super easy without requiring me to think. Also, I don’t want that person to be informed that I put them into my group “People I pretend to be friends with”.

With Circles, this is not a problem at all. Upon adding a person to my contacts, you are forced to choose at least one circle that person is supposed to belong to. Just put them into your “Pretended friends” circle (optionally create that circle in the same step) and nowhere else, and never share anything with that circle. The person will be informed that they have been added to your circles, but they don’t know anything about the particular circles you chose for them. Nifty!

What comes in really handy to ensure that you indeed never share anything with that circle is the fact that combinations of circles (you will need those!) you have previously shared content with are stored and can be selected again with one click instead of having to create that combination again. This is an apparently little-known feature so far. Many people wrote about the fact that the last combination of circles you shared content with is the default for sharing anything new. But circle combinations from the past are there, too, right at your finger tip.

Sure we’re friends, but I don’t want to read all your babbling!

This is the counterpart to the problem described above. There are people who you can’t reject as friends, but they are spamming your whole stream with information you don’t care about at all. Yay for information overload! I was told that there are ways to filter your stream in Facebook, but the fact that I can’t immediately see a way to do so and quickly browsing my account settings hasn’t given me any hint on how to day that means that there is something wrong. Again, let me be stupid!

Now, Circles helps you, but while the solution is simple, it is not very satisfying. You can simply put these persons into your “People I don’t wanna read” circle. The shortcoming of Circles in this case is, that you will no longer be able to read your global stream to profit from putting those people into that circle. You are forced to read the streams for all of your interesting circles separately. Not very nice! I am aware of the possibility to block people, but this is not always an option. There are people you don’t want to be spammed by, but you would still like to receive comments from them, for example.

Targeting multiple audiences

This is a problem I mostly know from Twitter. If you want to interact with multiple, completely different audiences, you quickly run into problems: By writing about topics that are only of interest to one of your audiences, you risk losing followers from your other audiences, who don’t want to read about all this boring stuff you write. The obvious solution, of course, is to use multiple accounts. But c’mon, we can do better than that, right? And after all, I am this one person with a diversity of interests and, hence, audiences. I don’t want to hide some of my interest behind specific accounts.

The Google+ solution is, of course, to use one circle for each of your target audiences. Since connections between people in Google+ are inherently unidirectional, similar to Twitter, this could really become Twitter done right.

Bottom line

For my personal way of interacting with social networks, Google+, and especially Circles, provides some handy solutions. Whether those problems I am facing in established networks are common or not, I cannot tell, but I have the impression that this time, Google have finally done it right and can change the landscape of social networking.

There are, however, a number of things I wish they had done better. Since this article is already long enough as it is, I decided to write about those in a separate posting.

1 Not that the Facebook UI is not very well thought out. I’m sure, with every new feature, some people have put a lot of thought into how to perform yet another act of Privacy Zuckering.