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Why Google+ Circles Might Suck

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Yes, you read that correctly. One of the main draws to Google+ is their intuitive “circle” system of listing your friends together into groups. It’s a feature that I see people repeatedly saying is one of the best things about this new social media platform. And while I agree that at first glance, the Google+ circle system had me ooo’ing and ahhhh’ing just like everyone else, as I’ve started to use the system more and more, I’m not sold. Yes, I think the circles might even suck.

Okay, before all you loyal Google fans freak out…I said might. As in “maybe they suck.” Or at least, “maybe they suck for some people.” Google+ is so new that the jury is still out on this one. But let me at least tell you a little about my experiences and how I think the Google+ system is slightly…okay, really…flawed.

A Twitter Approach to Networking

Let’s start at the very beginning.

One of the characteristics of Google+ that I really like is that you don’t have to be mutual friends to follow someone. Of course, everyone is able to control what anyone else sees, but if I like your blog and you have no idea who I am, I can still follow you and read whatever you decide to make public. You don’t have to follow me back. It’s very similar to Twitter in that respect, but with more levels of privacy. Awesome.

I like this because, frankly, I don’t like everyone who likes me. While that might sound harsh on a personal level, the fact of life is that you could be doing things that are really interesting to other people, but that doesn’t mean that other people are doing things that are really interesting to you – and that’s okay. I blog about blogging…and while that topic is relevant to Suzy who blogs about parenting and Donald who blogs about cars, I’m don’t have kids, nor do I care about my car beyond keeping it well maintained. So, Suzy and Donald can follow me, and I’m not pressured to clutter my stream with updates that are irrelevant. Awesome.

But Wait…Isn’t the Circle System Supposed to Cut Down on Clutter?

Yes. Yes, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s working that way.

When I add someone to my circles, I break things down pretty well (at least, I think I do). Right now, I have a circle for my best friends in real life, so I can update them about plans for happy hour. I also have a circle for BlogWorld folk, so we can talk about behind the scenes plans if we wish, as well as circles for gamers (one of my main interests) and for social media professionals and bloggers. As more people join, I will probably break down those categories even more. But just because I’ve created a pretty well-planned circle system doesn’t mean that others have.

If Suzy the parenting blogger follows me, for example, she might not use circles as well as I do. Maybe she has people who blog lumped into one circle, for example, regardless of whether they blog about blogging or blog about parenting. Or maybe she puts me in a random circle called “people I met at BlogWorld” – which isn’t very relevant unless BlogWorld is going on or we’re talking about the event afterward. In other words, people do not necessary create circles based on the topics they talk about. People are more likely to organize their circles based on the streams they want to see, not what makes sense for updating. My needs for these two ways of organizing people are very different.

The Public Problem

But all of that doesn’t really matter because of what I like to call the “public” problem.

Remember the first point I made, about how I like that you don’t have to be mutual friends? Well, the only way that really works is if people update publicly, at least occasionally. For bloggers, that’s not really much of a problem. If you’re looking at Google+ as a promotional tool, or even if you just use it as a way to gain ideas from like-minded people, allowing everyone to read your updates makes sense.

For example, earlier today, I talked about a project I was working on for bloggers. While it is relevant to my social media/blogging group most (and not, for example, my gamer friends), it might also be relevant to my followers that I’m not following…and it’s not sensitive information, so I want everyone to be able to see it.

The problem is, because I updated it to the general public, everyone saw it, even my gamer circle. It doesn’t matter if I pick Public and add other circles. The fact that I’ve chosen to make the update public means that everyone can see it.

And most of us bloggers what as much to be public as possible. Unless it contains information that is only relevant to everyone in a specific group (like plans for happy hour with local friends), it makes sense to connect with fans by making your updates public. If that’s the case though, if that’s how we use Google+, it really isn’t any different from using Twitter. You aren’t actually filtering anything for any circle.

A Solution?

I don’t like to complain about problems unless I can think of a solution…and while I’m not sure there are easy ones or even perfect ones, here’s what I think would work better than the current circle system:

The solution to the public problem is pretty easy. When you make something public, it should show up only for people who aren’t your mutual friends. They should be your default public group. If you want other groups to see it, you should have to pick public plus whatever circles are relevant. That would make Google+ so much better, with that one little change.

The second part of the solution, in my opinion, would be to have two levels of circles – private circles and public circles. Private circles would be sort-of what you see now – when you follow someone you add them to a circle to create different streams for yourself. It’s simply a way to organize your streams, similar to Twitter lists. I would actually like to see the option, like with Twitter, for you to make these lists known (if you want to) so that other people can follow everyone you have categorized a certain way. I find some of the best people on Twitter by browsing others’ lists.

Public circles would be more of an “opt in” type of system for updates. Where your private circles would be for people you want to follow, your public circles would be for people who want to follow you. You would list off any topics you discuss regularly and people could add themselves to those lists to see updates in those categories from you. That way, as a follower, you can control what you see a little more easily. You’d use your public circles when you posted anything (again, private circles would just be for categorizing your own streams).

This works for two reasons. First, it allows you to opt out when you don’t like specific content that’s showing up in your stream, but don’t want to stop following a person completely. I could sign up for Suzie’s public blogging circle, but avoid her public parenting circle, even though with the current system, she just updated everyone at once. To go along with that, some people are really clogging up my stream right now. I don’t want to miss some of their updates about specific topics, so I continue to follow them, but I wish I could mute them with other topics so I could more easily read updates in my streams.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly from a promotional tool standpoint, it allows you to show someone you’re interested when they might have otherwise assumed that you don’t care. For example, under the current system, I might add Suzie to my blogging circle, never realizing that she’s actually really interested in gaming as well. I’m missing out on potential conversation with Suzie because I don’t know everything about her. Or maybe one of my gamer friends is interested in starting a blog – they’d be potential fans of mine if only I hadn’t excluded them from my blog-related updates.

With this system, I’d also like to see invite-only circles, which would kind of work the way hidden groups work on Facebook. They’d be for small groups of people who have specific reasons for talking to one another that don’t need to be public. Essentially, it would be a public circle, but one where you invite people to join (and they can say yes or no). For example, my local friends could all be in an invite-only circle so we could make dinner plans or the BlogWorld team could all be in an invite-only circle so we could speak about the event privately.

Again, my solutions might not be perfect, but I really do think that the circle system needs a little more thought. Right now, it is a good start, but I think one of the reasons I’m not completely loving Google+ yet is because it doesn’t offer me the level of control I really want…yet. It’s a step up from Facebook, to be sure, but I think it might still suck. At least a little, at least for right now.


Feedback

14
  • Mike Stenger

    I personally like the current circles system Alli, but I do understand what you’re saying. Excellent points and articulating on your thoughts.

  • Corey Freeman

    Hmm. I was worried when I read the title but you make a great point about controlling content sent to people who you aren’t following. I know I’ll talk a lot about freelance writing and entrepreneurship, but people in my “geek” and “family and friends” circles really won’t care, and I don’t really want them to get bored with my updates. And if you don’t make anything public, you’re left with an empty profile. It kind of encourages “watered down” messages to entice people who haven’t filtered you yet.

  • Jason Wigley

    Subscribing to a topic specific content from someone wouldn’t work, because you would have to rely on everyone you follow to accurately tag each update.

    • Allison Boyer

      Well, yes, but I trust people more to accurately tag posts than I trust them to just assume what I want to see. At least you get a little more control that way.

  • Russell Wilson

    Regarding the topic of people’s usage of Circles…it appears as though you seem to think the circles indicate what you will see, or, that people will use that as a main functionality.

    Per this line: “People are more likely to organize their circles based on the streams they want to see, not what makes sense for updating”

     It’s entirely possible you’ve seen it used that way definitely, which is fine, but the majority (especially those coming from Facebook) aren’t going to use circles as much as for choosing which information they *WANT* to see as they will for choosing who sees what update. That has been the main marketed purpose of the data control Google + touts. I completely disagree with that assumption.

      The functionality is nice, but if I add someone to a circle in general, it’s because I’m interested in what they say, and not as an organization tool so I can say “I feel like reading gaming-only posts”.

      While there’s no doubt that will happen, I don’t see it as “more likely”. I don’t even see it as “likely”. It’s not a newsfeed filtering system, it’s a data control system, and I believe people realize that.

      As far as the ‘Public not being sent to circles’ solution, I have to disagree with that as well. It doesn’t make sense. So now, if I post something publicly, I have to add circles if I want my friends to see it as well? If you don’t want to see something someone is posting that they feel comfortable posting to everyone, what’s the point in general of having them connected on a Social Media site?

      The secondary solution would be much less of a pain, to be sure, but it’s still rather pointless. Given your example, if you add Suzy, and she lists nothing on her profile about her interests (in, per say, gaming), that’s on her. Perhaps she doesn’t want people to know she games? If she did, and were interested in feeds, it’s on her to say “Hey! I like gaming!”. The website doesn’t need intuitive, and what can also become intrusive, “suggestions”.

      Just my thoughts. Excellent article, and I see your points. Just disagree with the assumptions made, and moreso the solutions. The solutions possess as many issues as the “suck” you’re trying to “fix”. Google+ has several issues, most definitely. These just come across as more nit-picky without any real solution.

    • Alli

      “While there’s no doubt that will happen, I don’t see it as “more likely”. I don’t even see it as “likely”. It’s not a newsfeed filtering system, it’s a data control system, and I believe people realize that.”

      Maybe we’re having different experiences, then, because I think most of my friends are using circles equally to filter their own streams AND to determine which users see which updates. That’s certainly how I use it. As I follow more and more people, organizing my streams is extremely important to me. BUT if the main purpose is to determine who see what, it makes sense for the follower to control that, just as much as the followed. Otherwise, to be most useful, you essentially have to add and categorize every single person who follows you or you don’t have content control anyway, since the other option is to make everything public.

      “As far as the ‘Public not being sent to circles’ solution, I have to disagree with that as well. It doesn’t make sense. So now, if I post something publicly, I have to add circles if I want my friends to see it as well? If you don’t want to see something someone is posting that they feel comfortable posting to everyone, what’s the point in general of having them connected on a Social Media site?”

      I think perhaps you’re not understanding my argument. I’m not talking about this from a “sensitive information” perspective. If I post something for the BlogWorld team, I wouldn’t make it public. I’m talking about it from a content filtering perspective so that my gamer friends’ streams aren’t clogged with blogging updates and vice versa. But this leaves out the third group of people – the people who have followed me, but whom I have followed back. If you don’t talk about more than one topic, there’s no issue here, but I do. I think many people do.

      Let’s say I want to update about gaming. I have mutual friends in a gaming circle, but some of my non-mutual friends are also gamers. So right now my options are to make the update for just my gaming circle and leave out the public gamers or to make the update public and clog the streams of people in other circles who aren’t interested in games. Both are bad options.

      “Given your example, if you add Suzy, and she lists nothing on her profile about her interests (in, per say, gaming), that’s on her. Perhaps she doesn’t want people to know she games? If she did, and were interested in feeds, it’s on her to say “Hey! I like gaming!”. The website doesn’t need intuitive, and what can also become intrusive, “suggestions”.

      I’m not proposing that when you follow someone they suggest that you be put in certain circles or something. I’m just proposing that you show them their options on receiving content. If you like someone, you could choose “follow all” or whatever, but you could also filter a little more if you want to. Just because something isn’t my primary interest doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I can’t list everything in my profile and sometimes my interests change over time. Again, I’m looking at all of this from a “not clogging uninterested people’s streams” perspective, NOT a “I’m posting pictures of my son and only want people I know IRL to see them” perspective. That’s why I proposed something similar to FB’s hidden groups for that kind of content control.

      Basically, the way I see it, there are three different reasons people filter right now (for there own stream organization, to control based on topic, and to control based on security), and I don’t think the system is working for all three since people use it differently.

    • Allison Boyer

      “While there’s no doubt that will happen, I don’t see it as “more
      likely”. I don’t even see it as “likely”. It’s not a newsfeed filtering
      system, it’s a data control system, and I believe people realize that.”

      Maybe we’re having different experiences, then, because I think most
      of my friends are using circles equally to filter their own streams AND
      to determine which users see which updates. That’s certainly how I use
      it. As I follow more and more people, organizing my streams is extremely
      important to me. BUT if the main purpose is to determine who see what,
      it makes sense for the follower to control that, just as much as the
      followed. Otherwise, to be most useful, you essentially have to add and
      categorize every single person who follows you or you don’t have content
      control anyway, since the other option is to make everything public.

      “As far as the ‘Public not being sent to circles’ solution, I have to
      disagree with that as well. It doesn’t make sense. So now, if I post
      something publicly, I have to add circles if I want my friends to see it
      as well? If you don’t want to see something someone is posting that
      they feel comfortable posting to everyone, what’s the point in general
      of having them connected on a Social Media site?”

      I think perhaps you’re not understanding my argument. I’m not talking
      about this from a “sensitive information” perspective. If I post
      something for the BlogWorld team, I wouldn’t make it public. I’m talking
      about it from a content filtering perspective so that my gamer friends’
      streams aren’t clogged with blogging updates and vice versa. But this
      leaves out the third group of people – the people who have followed me,
      but whom I have followed back. If you don’t talk about more than one
      topic, there’s no issue here, but I do. I think many people do.

      Let’s say I want to update about gaming. I have mutual friends in a
      gaming circle, but some of my non-mutual friends are also gamers. So
      right now my options are to make the update for just my gaming circle
      and leave out the public gamers or to make the update public and clog
      the streams of people in other circles who aren’t interested in games.
      Both are bad options.

      “Given your example, if you add Suzy, and she lists nothing on
      her profile about her interests (in, per say, gaming), that’s on her.
      Perhaps she doesn’t want people to know she games? If she did, and were
      interested in feeds, it’s on her to say “Hey! I like gaming!”. The
      website doesn’t need intuitive, and what can also become intrusive,
      “suggestions”.

      I’m not proposing that when you follow someone they suggest that you
      be put in certain circles or something. I’m just proposing that you show
      them their options on receiving content. If you like someone, you could
      choose “follow all” or whatever, but you could also filter a little
      more if you want to. Just because something isn’t my primary interest
      doesn’t mean I’m not interested. I can’t list everything in my profile
      and sometimes my interests change over time. Again, I’m looking at all
      of this from a “not clogging uninterested people’s streams” perspective,
      NOT a “I’m posting pictures of my son and only want people I know IRL
      to see them” perspective. That’s why I proposed something similar to
      FB’s hidden groups for that kind of content control.

      Basically, the way I see it, there are three different reasons people
      filter right now (for there own stream organization, to control based
      on topic, and to control based on security), and I don’t think the
      system is working for all three since people use it differently.

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    I left – I was getting tired of all the “A-list bloggers” Google was suggesting I follow dominating the stream, talking to each other about Google+. Really, people – if I want to read Matt Cutts, Robert Scoble, Gina Trapani, Pete Cashmore or Vic Gundotra, I know *exactly* where to find them!

  • BlogWorld Expo

    Well if Google + wouldn’t have kept me from joining until yesterday I might have something constructive to add to the conversation. But since I am clueless I can only says Alli and Russel both sound smart and I am jealous that Ed has already joined, gotten sick of it and quit before I could even get in!

  • Liza

    I’m only now trying it.  Ugh! Too much work! I have to start all over again, with friends selection/invitation, etc.  Then you have to organize everyone in circles.  Grrrr. … I’ll stay on FB for now.

  • Kim

    Why not just add a ‘Make Public Except…’ option?  

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