Circles, Part Deux: It's Complicated
In a lot of ways, I feel this is like the early days of Twitter -- a world still small enough that you can actually check out the profiles of new people you run across, or who've reshared or commented on your posts, and see if their posts are of interest. Of course, the hurdle is Circles. I might go to check out someone and see only an empty posts page, because they've shared everything with Circles I'm not a member of.
It's a discoverability problem, obviously, and one each user will have to solve for themselves. Are you here to share with people you know, or here to be discovered by (and to discover) new people? Or some combination of the two, which is the great opportunity of G+. That will influence how you use Circles and how much you opt to post publicly. Which brings me to this aforementioned second post about the implications and usage of Circles.
As useful and flexible as they are, they raise a number of questions a product nerd like me could spend untold hours pondering. Here are some of the more preoccupying ones, for batting around in comments I hope:1) Does it necessarily mean anything to be in someone's Circles?
Everyone has no doubt felt this. You add someone and they add you back. Nice. Except then sometimes you never actually see anything from them. Are they not posting? Or did they put you in a Circle marked "Courtesy Follow"? It's human nature to wonder, but on a more practical level it sets up a very different dynamic from Twitter. (Which I continue to think is the more important corollary here than Facebook.) Many people I pay close attention to on Twitter are now here and have been added to my Circles and added me back. But if they aren't posting stuff where I can see it, it's not the equivalent of the experience I have of them on Twitter. Here, following someone is a statement of interest or intent, rather than an action with a predictable corresponding result. I find myself hoping, in the broadest sense, that people won't wall off here what was once publicly shared there. 2) How will we know who's interesting?
This one has many more layers than I could begin to cram into this post, and others have been posting thoughtfully on various angles, so this will be clumsily brief(ish). As noted above, if people are limiting access to their posts, you can't know what subjects they're even posting about, much less whether they have anything new or interesting to say on those subjects. And then there's the issue of gaining access to the posts. It's one thing for John Doe to say to himself, "I'm going to post about go-kart racing, Kabbalah and where I go on vacation," and then to create Circles of people he knows are interested in those varying subjects -- so that the go-kart fanatics aren't necessarily subjected to the Kabbalah posts. And maybe the vacation posts are public. What if you run across him, don't care about his vacations, and don't know he's a fellow go-kart fanatic posting a wealth of great stuff? Or maybe you know (through the grapevine or because he's famous in go-kart circles) that he is posting about go karts. As it stands, you have to not only know that but ask him to add you to his Circle so you can see. Maybe he's broadcasting the vacation posts specifically so he can gain a following in the travel world. How do the go-kart people who are following him opt out of seeing all the public travel posts? Like I said, the list of complexities here goes on. And on. Many have suggested the idea of public circles ("Squares") that one could explicitly see on a profile and opt into. Tags and other tools would also be helpful, but there's the challenge of keeping the feature set small enough to not scare away new users.3) Are Circles for following or sharing?
Despite the title of my previous post on this subject, Circles are in fact mandatory -- assuming you care to see what anyone else is posting.
One good reason providers offer users an all-public or all-private service is that it's simple to build a user interface and experience around. Once you try to mix it up, as G+ is doing, things get almost impossibly convoluted and hard to convey. I'm thrilled Google's tackling it, but the one conceptual issue I have with the Circles concept is that it conflates the notions of following and sharing. And given that G+ is allowing for nuance in the private/public realm, that conflation becomes evident in a way it isn't with more simplistic services. Google is attempting to telegraph the fact that we're meant to use Circles for both purposes by pre-naming one Circle "Following." I.e., put people in here whose stuff you want to see, but think of it as a Circle you won't necessarily ever share with. In other words, it's probably not people you know and expect to follow you back. And that's all well and good. But what about the flip side? For instance, I might put my grandma's sister Sally in my Family circle, because I'm willing to share my family event photos with her, along with the rest of my family. It doesn't necessarily mean I want to follow her posts, but that's the automatic result. (Assuming she posts publicly, or to a Circle she has me in. The need for endless caveats in writing this reinforces how complicated it is.) So I have to choose between making two circles for the family photo recipients -- one with the people I only want to share to, and another for those I want to follow as well -- or only putting my follow-worthy relatives in my Family circle and adding others' names to individual shared posts on a case-by-case basis.
In the realm of things a lot of people (pundits especially) seem not to have noticed is that you can filter your stream on a Circle-by-Circle basis. Click the name of any Circle in the list on the left side of your stream, and the stream will be reduced to only those posts. That starts to change the way you think about how you group people as you add them -- according not only to who you want to share with and who you want to follow, but how you might want to narrow the stream when you're tight on time or trying not to miss something important to you. If you're +Rakesh Agrawal
worrying about +Robert Scoble
drowning out your close friends, for example, put him and other prolific people in a Busy circle and check in on it separately from your other Circles.
It's a lot to factor into one's approach to the product.
And yes, the very first piece of feedback I sent the G+ team was that we should be able to turn off just one Circle, or have any combination turned on at a time, rather than having to look at one Circle at a time. I'm sure I'm far from alone in making that request.
-------Here's Part One if you missed it: https://plus.google.com/116043077392264191654#116043077392264191654/posts/5AWm4es4vsq