UXG+: Fostering a Sense of Community
In a comment to my post on the Empathy Graph, +Yonatan Zunger , the chief architect for Google+, agreed that what set Google+ apart for him was the sense of community.

Yonatan wrote, "...my own experience has been like that too. I thought I was unusual in this regard. If there's something about the dynamic of this place which is encouraging greater empathy and community, then it's something I want to encourage as much as humanly possible...And do you have thoughts on what would encourage it further?"

How do the dynamics of the Google+ user experience foster a sense of community? This is such an important question that I’m going to turn it over to my community here on Google+ as well as write my own (very long) answer below.

Rules for This Thread
I want to focus on what is working and how to leverage that to make it work better. What I don’t want are the same grumbles and complaints that we’ve hashed out on our other threads. We are here. We are using Google+. We’ve had some great experiences. The conversations, despite the perceived hurdles, go on. What works? Be specific and concrete. Offer solutions.

In order to do that, be personaI. I want you to think about some of the best conversations that you’ve had while you were here and what lead up to them.
• How did you meet the people in that discussion?
• Did you already have existing ties?
• What specific elements of the user experience provide the special dynamic that entices you into these wonderful conversations we have with each other? What makes you engage with strangers? Stop and leave a comment? Circle someone you don't know?
• What design elements could be incorporated to encourage greater empathy and community?
• Is there anything that's holding you back?
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Terminology
I know these terms are cringe-worthy but until someone coins some new ones, this is how I'm defining them.
• social graph: the map of your existing connections.
• interest graph: a network of people sharing information centered around common interests, topics, or causes (such as political activism). A connection may exist but is not required.
• empathy graph: a sense of community, a support group. The connection usually evolves from shared interests as conversations move from public topics to more personal ones.

A sense of community stems from a sense of ease. You can't share your innermost thoughts and feelings until you feel comfortable. The level of inhibition in a discussion varies wildly both by topic and by the personalities types of the people involved. (I've written elsewhere how Google+ has created an environment that has made those of us more introverted comfortable.)

Case Study: Me
Dynamic: A Fresh Start, Egalitarianism and Meritocracy
From the very first day I've been on Google+ I've encountered helpful people. I think the initial sense of community stemmed from the fact that we were all starting from scratch and, in that sense, as equals. Members of the Google+ team actively engaged with us. Tech gurus conversed with tech newbies.

Because we were all starting fresh, Google+ provided a place to establish a reputation . In my case, I didn't need to be a big tech journo for people to listen to my advice; I just had to give good advice.

[Aside. Google+ all but destroyed this sense of community with the Suggested User List. The feeling that the best would rise to the top, the motivation to be one's best self, was replaced by a sense of unfair favoritism. When even a big name like +Robert Scoble says, "I'm not going to play that game. Take me off the list." you know that feelings have soured. Does anyone starting on Google+ today have that same sense of the possibilities, of working together, as we did eleven months ago?]

Dynamic: Real World Interactions: Friendships Develop
In the real world, not everyone you interact with is a friend. You aren't born with friends. Friendships develop over time based on proximity and interactions. Thanks to the Internet, our friendships are no longer constrained by proximity. The focus here is entirely on the interaction.

Google+ does a much better job of modeling this than Facebook. In a social network, you define your perimeter (your existing connections) and then you act within it. On a sharing network, you share what interests you and that attracts people who share that interest.

+Yonatan Zunger said, “All of my such experiences started out as discussions about interests, but veered off as we got to know each other more.”

I think that's exactly how it works. In my own case, I once mentioned in a post that I was currently out of work. +Youssef Hachhouch left a commiserating comment and said that he was in the same boat. That little pat on the back raised my awareness of him. So a couple of days later, when he wrote a post about some frustration, I stopped by and left a word of encouragement.

His post was a turning point for me. It turned into a conversation with half a dozen people that went on for over three days. Have you ever been at a conference where you strike up a conversation with a small group of strangers. As things close down, the conversation is so intense that you all move to a bar to keep talking. And you talk late into the night, animatedly, full of discovery and the recognition of "Wow! You do that, too. I thought I was the only one!" That was the dynamic.

What elements of the Google+ interface made that conversation possible?
1. Notifications.
The participants frequently addressed each other by @ name, which sent a notification and drew people back into the conversation. This was especially important because not all the conversation happened in real time. The participants were scattered across Europe and America over many time zones. I'd write something, go to bed, and wake up to find that half a dozen people had left me more questions or comments. Then I'd have to scroll up the long thread, read what had been written overnight, and respond with questions for them.

These days, I notice that people other than the author of the post, now use notifications in order to call someone into a discussion. This is just as it should work! Unfortunately, notifications get bad press. I think because of the potential for abuse by spammers, that notifications are mistrusted and poorly understood by a lot of new users. A lot of people overly limit them -- cutting off the potential relationships. Certainly there have been times where I've had to tell someone not to spam me but I allow notifications from "Anyone" and have had few problems with spam. People need better education on the power of the Notification system. The wording in the interface could be improved, too.

How to Improve Notifications.
Notifications are the equivalent of an Inbox. Reading notifications is the first thing I do when I get on Google+.
1. Make it easier to get read them. The redesign, I'm sad to say, has made this more difficult because there is no longer a special button for the Notification stream -- you have to click through the Notification window to get to "View all notifications". When you are having an involved discussion, you have to move to the post view. It's just too hard to read in the little notification window.
2. I wish I could use the j-key shortcut to click through my Notifications stream (when in the main window).
3. The Notification window seems unstable -- I've lost too many comments there while typing them.
4. I still get the sense that I'm missing notifications. I see things via email Notifications which float away in the stream of the Notification window.

Bookmark to Read Later.
People have started leaving a comment in post to "bookmark it" so that they can come back to the discussion later -- pinged by Notifications that the conversation is ongoing. Google+ needs a star system like Gmail. A star, which bookmarks a post for the reader, is different than a +1, which is feedback to the author.

2. Comments.
Conversations are the soul of a community. The one-line cheer or boo, the LOL, the "Awesome" are not conversation. They are surface chit-chat. The +1 button handles that transaction. A +1 or an online comment may produce a kind of community spirit akin to rooting for the same sports team. A pat on the back is also always appreciated. But these are just the baby steps toward developing empathy. True empathy is when you move to the next level and have that heart-to-heart (or mind-to-mind, for us T-types) conversation.

In a conversation, comments are essential. This should be obvious but even calling them comments gives off the connotation that they are less important, merely annotations to the main text.

In the original Google+, a post could be anything. It could be a blog post, where someone is broadcasting and the audience merely cheers or boos in response. Or it could be a discussion where both halves of the interaction are equally important.

The Google+ redesign changed the feeling that a post could be anything. Comments are muted (originally almost grayed out). The focus is on the author and on the post. Communication is one way. Now Google+ feels more like blogging than talking. This subtle but important change retards the sense community because it hinders discussion. And from the initial reaction to the redesign, you must have seen how people noticed it.

On the plus side, Google+ comments work now because:
a. They're easy to leave. You don't have to sign into a blog or be friends with the author. (See note below.)
b. They feel conversational, like messaging, but one isn't limited by length. This encourages people to tell longer, more involved stories, just like they would in real life. It enables people to move from the superficial cocktail chatter, to some really deep discussions.
c. We can edit our comments. (This is probably the biggest reason I've abandoned blogging, Twitter, and even Gmail for Google+.)

[Note: I've seen a suggestion recently for Google+ to implement some sort of karma score to alleviate the problem with trolls. I don't have problems with trolls, nor do I see it much in my circles -- so I may be insensitive to this problem. I know that some people have said that they can't have a public discussion on a controversial issue because of troll attacks. However, I'm wary of any system which would make it harder to leave comments. Again, I think it is the *egalitarian and open nature of Google+ that has made it possible to form communities.]

How To Improve Comments.
Many people involved in intense and meaningful discussion leave long comments which I want to refer to. Comments need to be objects in Google+, just like posts. We can already +1 and edit or delete them, as we do posts. But we need to be able to reshare and link to them, too. This would enable us to spin conversations off, for example, from a public post to a private aside or a smaller discussion.

3. Dynamics: Trust and Safety (Sometimes Strangers Are Better Than Friends)
The people who are the most supportive aren’t necessarily the people who are in your existing social network. In fact, just the opposite. Strangers can be encouraging because they don't know anything about your backstory. They don't know your baggage. Moreover, it doesn't cost them anything to offer encouragement. Strangers aren't going to suffer from the consequences of your decisions. So it's easier for them to say, "Go ahead and go for it! Live your dreams." than it is for your friends and family.

How to Improve Trust and Safety
Google+ blew it on the nym wars and drove off a lot of people who would have been here building support communities. I hope that when the Blogger integration comes, that you are more sensitive to the kind of anonymity people require when asking questions of sensitive personal nature -- the kinds of questions that are too sensitive to ask even their closest friends. The needs of that kind of personal support community are like the needs of people at an AA meeting. (Maybe there's no place for them on Google+.)

[Tangent: Is it possible that after we establish an account with our real names, that there could be community support pages which we could access via a pseudonym? Google+ could track our pseudonym but that connection would be invisible externally. This would be a non-voting pseudonym which would be allowed to comment only on these specially created discussion forums/pages. For example, let's say there were community support pages on autism, drug problems, spousal abuse, or job hunting.]

4. Dynamics: Discovery
First of all let me say that there is not a single person from my social network with whom I engage on Google+. Not one. Some of my existing connections have accounts here and I sometimes share things with them (or cross-post links to Twitter or Facebook to entice them over). I occasionally receive comments from a friend of a friend. Nor did any of my online friends from blogging or Twitter follow me to Google+.

That means my entire sense of community grew entirely from the interactions I've had on Google+. Currently 12,000 people follow me on Google+. I follow about 1200. I distinguish between my sources (the people I follow) and my audience (the people who follow me).

So how did I find anybody? My community began with the openness and the helpfulness of the Google+ team in the first weeks of the beta -- your willingness to talk to us users provided the sense that we were collaborating on this new system. You, +Yonatan Zunger were one of the first people I followed. From there, I just started adding people who seemed (from their comments) to be particularly helpful, curious, or insightful.

In addition to comments, I also look at who the person I thought was interesting was following. Unfortunately, the habit of most people circling anyone who followed them and adding people they don't know via Shared Circles has pretty much ruined this strategy. It is impossible to know who are "real" connections and who are strangers under evaluation. When we had the Incoming stream, we could evaluate people without following them. But no more.

How to Improve Discovery
To recap, the natural evolution of our relationships starts with discussions over shared interests which then veer off onto more personal tangents. Thus the most important way to improve the empathy graph, our sense of community, is to provide tools for the interest graph.

1. The discussions on how to do this are out there: tagging posts (categories are not the same as keywords), community pages and event pages, better search tools, suggested topics lists...help us find each other.

2. Don't give us a better social network. Understand that there are a lot of people on Google+ because we don't want the Facebook experience. We don't want a different model of car. We want an airplane. Google+ has it within its grasp right now to give users something Facebook can't provide: the interest graph and a sense of real community.

3. Don't destroy synchronicity. Don't box me in. Don't limit my options.
The best thing about the original Google+ was the sense of equality. A post could be anything. Anyone could talk to anyone. We were all exploring this new territory together, discovering new ideas, and making friends in the process.

The worst thing about the Google+ redesign is that in an attempt to simplify Google+, there is a sense of favoritism, of sacrificing one group for another, a feeling of limiting our options, of dumbing down, the loss of egalitarianism. Post content is favored over comments which in turn means blog type posts are favored over forum-like or discussion posts. Graphics are favored over words. Celebrities are favored over non-celebrities. The feeling of meritocracy is disappearing. Existing relationships are favored over the potential of discovering new people. (This last thing isn't a tool dynamic -- it's a problem with education and marketing.)

Summary: Simpler is not always better.
The richness of human life comes from the complexity of our human relationships. Embrace complexity.
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Now I'm calling on my various communities to answer the question: How do the dynamics of the Google+ user experience foster your sense of community?

• The people always willing to lend a hand, who reach out to the newbies and provide that sense of a helpful friendly Google+ community: +Mark Traphagen +Ryan Crowe +Johnathan Chung +Ardith Goodwin +Denis Labelle +Marc Jansen +Rahul Roy +Jaana Nyström +Christina Trapolino +Tetsuya Kitahata +Ronnie Bincer
• My fellow bridge-builders: +Brian Titus +Eileen O'Duffy +Debbie Ohi
• The group at the bar who got me talking excitedly about things other than Google+: +Daniela Huguet Taylor +Youssef Hachhouch +Armida Evony +Amy Knepper +Alex Schleber +Anita Law +nomad dimitri +Paulissa Kipp (and all the introverts who are uncomfortable being mentioned by name...you know who you are). Also the people who stop by frequently to chat: +Greg Cunningham +Cara Evangelista +Meirav M.
• The people who have been changed by their experiences here: +Ted Ewen +Eli Fennell or who love the convention/conference feel of it +Cliff Roth
+Max Huijgen who sees in Google+ the potential for the MOAF (Mother of All Forums). All the tl;dr writers, warriors in the war on words, people fighting for the interest graph, and Google communities : +Alexander Becker +Dieter Mueller +Colin Lucas-Mudd +Peter Strempel +Tormod Renberg Lerøy +Bob O`Bob
• And +Kimberly Chapman who brought the suggestion of karma ratings for comments to my attention.
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