If Google doesn't give us noise controls soon, we're going to see a lot more posts like Brian Shaler's, below.

I've seen this trend before on FriendFeed and Google Buzz. Some people love talking in conversation forums. Most don't and when the noise level gets too high (I call this the Chat Room Problem, read more about what that is here: http://scobleizer.com/2009/11/02/the-chat-roomforum-problem-an-apology-to-technosailor/ ) people leave, or, worse, just spend time elsewhere.

I'm noticing this too. Twitter keeps streaming along at its same speed that it did before Google+ came out. It is now boring looking, but it still has far less distractions than the comment areas do here, especially since you can't filter or amplify yet.

And, yes, I do realize the irony that I'm calling Google+ noisy, but I'm a noise expert because of that. And, whatever you think of my noise I'm seeing a TON more on my screen, because I'm following so many here and elsewhere. That actually makes me noisy too, because in the noise I'm seeing a lot of fun things to share (I'd share more, by the way, if it wasn't causing such a noise cost on you).

Anyway, one neat thing is I'm following Brian everywhere, so will see his content no matter where he lands.
The honeymoon is over, and I'm a little nonplussed about G+

(Feel free to skip this warm and fuzzy foreword and proceed to the next headline, "a-Buzz," for critiques)

Right away, Google+ and I hit it off fairly well. It's a splendid new social site that introduces new mechanics to how you can interact with your friends online. A welcome change from Twitter, Facebook, et al.

The biggest paradigm shift introduced by Google+ is a digital representation of a real-world social network construct: Circles. Your friends, family, coworkers, Internet-acquaintances, former classmates, and so on generally exist as clusters—or circles—in your mind. You talk about certain things with certain circles. Google+ does a great job of mirroring this behavior by allowing users to share content with specific subsets of your network and consume content from your friends based on what circle they're in.

As a bonus, it does all this using fancy HTML5/Javascript functionality in real-time. It's a joy to use.

Once I installed the Android app, my feelings for Google+ started to grow stronger. I miss Brightkite, and while Picplz and Foursquare have allowed me to share photos of cool places I've been, they're no placement. Google+, however, gave me a tingle, a phantom feeling of my long lost Brightkite limb. My "activity stream" could once again include thoughts and (geo-tagged) photos! What's more, I can post a group of related photos as a single update!

All this is to say that Google+ got my attention, and I would clearly love to continue using it. But will I?

It turns out investing my time into a social network is about more than what features are available on the network. Long before Brightkite shut down, it stopped being social. I felt like the only person among my friends using it. It had become little more than a chronological photo log of cool places I've discovered during my travels. The only social aspect of it was the syndication to Twitter and Facebook.

Everyone is different, and I'm sure I'm far from the norm, so I must add a disclaimer that even if a social network becomes useless to me, it won't necessarily fail. With that in mind, let's take a look what Google+ could do to improve and what might cause it to fail.

All a-Buzz about Plus

Remember Google Buzz? We shouldn't talk about Buzz when we're talking about social networks, because it wasn't a social network. It should have been positioned as a new kind of Google Reader. Google Reader is for reading RSS/blogs, and Google Buzz is for reading what your friends have posted online. Even with that perspective, would Buzz be considered a success? Definitely not. The biggest flaw in Buzz, no matter how you look at it, relates to noise and content equality. More on that later.

While on the topic of Buzz, a quick way to turn Google+ into a dismal failure would be to flip a switch (e.g. enable the API) that allows people to populate their streams using posts from other sites (e.g. syndicate Twitter updates to Google+, cross-post via a client application to Twitter/FB/G+/etc).

Google+ is meant to be social. If people automatically feed their content to Google+ without actually using Google+, you'll have content without people. Content without people isn't social.

Content Equality

Google Buzz suffered immediately from something that is slowly starting to signal the demise of Twitter. Google+ is on track to suffer the problem. The problem? If someone posts about eating a cracker—hey, maybe it's a really good cracker—that post is treated with the same importance of a post about a death or a divorce—a real one, not the celebrity kind. This wasn't a problem on Twitter a few years ago. People used to limit how much drivel they posted, and users would lambast you if you tweeted too frequently. Some people still follow less than 500 users on Twitter and read most or all of their friends' tweets, but as more people get more noisy, that Twitter lifestyle will continue to be less common. People now pipe their activity on other sites (e.g. Foursquare check-ins, YouTube favorites, farm/mafia status) to Twitter.

Twitter didn't scale. It worked when it was smaller, because there was a filter. But the filter—the judgment of the author—went away. Without that filter, how do you manage noise? If you follow 100 people and one of them posts as much as the rest of them combined, you'd simply unfollow that person. Well, that's not effective. All or nothing? You either subject yourself to everything or you disown them?

I digress. This isn't a rant about Twitter. In the context of Google+, I see the same issue already, within a couple weeks of public launch. The only solution to the problem is hiding noisy people in Circles, which sounds a lot like Twitter lists. This is a tangent I'll dedicate a section to later.

As a data guy, I have a mantra. You can never have too much data, as long as you have the proper tools to make use of the data. You shouldn't require all your friends to have an unwritten rule of how frequently to post or what is not important enough to post. As we saw with Twitter, unwritten rules can fade away.

I'm not a huge fan of Facebook, for various reasons, but I have to point out that Facebook is one of the only players doing this. They might not be doing it right, but they're doing it. Facebook has a chronological news feed and a "Top News" view. It's simple: If a post gets a lot of comments or likes, it bubbles up to the top. Facebook's implementation is far, far, far from ideal, but it's a great illustration of what can [easily] be done.

Twitter Lists vs Google+ Circles

People have made this comparison before. Aren't Google+ Circles just like Twitter lists (or Facebook lists for that matter)? Yes and no. When you read posts from a subset of your friends, Google+ Circles are pretty much identical to Twitter Lists. Wouldn't it be great if you could direct tweets at a subset of your friends based on which list you've added them to?

So we're clear: Google+ Circles are not like Twitter Lists.

Unfortunately, though, Google+ Circles are too similar to Twitter Lists in the way that makes Twitter Lists almost entirely useless. The best use case for Twitter lists is "fake following." You can "follow" a million people, but add only your "real" friends to a list, and have your intimate Twitter experience while being nice to everyone you don't actually care about. Twitter Lists are a tease, though. Wouldn't it be great to make a "Designers" list and see tweets about design? No, Twitter lists don't work that way. If your designer friends like basketball, you'll be sure to see more basketball tweets than design tweets during the NBA finals. Having topical Twitter Lists is just as useless as having topical Google+ Circles.

If Google doesn't start to differentiate Google+ Circles from Twitter Lists soon, people will start to realize they're only useful for restricting who can see your posts. There are cases where restricting who can read your posts can be great, but what will happen when people realize that posting something to a circle does nothing more than hide it from some people? This topic deserves its own section.

Posting to a Circle: What's the point?

I don't think anyone has pointed this out as a problem, since the feature is working exactly how it was intended and designed. I can post "Hey New York friends! I'm in NYC!" and not bug my Phoenix friends. If one of them goes to my profile, I'm fine with them seeing it. Not directing the post to them would be my way of telling the System, "So and so likely doesn't need to know this."

Unfortunately, due to the Content Equality problem, restricting who sees it doesn't increase the chances that those who can see it will see it. How often will you be using this social network to share "for your eyes only" stuff? It's fine for hide-from-everyone-else to be an option, but I wouldn't expect it to be the preferred behavior if an option is included to direct a post at a circle while still allowing it to be found by the rest of your friends (or the public).

Say you have 1,000 connections and you visit a place where you know 50 people, all of whom you have in a circle for that place. Will your post shown to 5% of your friends be treated any differently than a funny cat picture you shared as "Public"? It seems like that restricted post would be more relevant.

Another example: I used the "reshare" feature to show something to my friend +Ben Parr and shared it ONLY with him. Unfortunately, he's quite popular on Google+. Since I didn't "+-mention" him in the reshare (which would result in an email and annoying RED notification) or check the "notify this person" box, what are the chances he saw it? I bet he didn't. Oh well. I should have just emailed the link to him.

In summary, posting to circles is currently about who to hide content from, instead of who to push it to. Maybe I'm the only one whose bubble was deflated after realizing this, but I doubt it.

Group discussions

Okay, so there are discussions happening all over the place on Google+. Public/Private posts, comments, Hangouts (10-person video chat), and Huddles (mobile-only group chatrooms). But ever since the advent of Twitter Lists, people have wondered (perhaps too quietly/subconsciously) why there can't be a way of everyone in a list tweeting at each other on a given topic (e.g. Design)? Facebook has Groups for this, and mailing lists have existed for ages.

The issue here is that for a community to share content with each other (a community could be something like Arduino enthusiasts located in a particular city), everyone will need to maintain their own copy of the list. Twitter Lists can serve as a pretty good example, where Lists can be public or private, and if they're public, they can be "followed" by other users. This doesn't imply that the members of the followed List or Circle would see your content, though. In both cases, your content would only be seen if the other members of the List or Circle either A.) follow the same List/Circle, or B.) follow/add you directly. Facebook Groups handles this differently, where if you are added to a Group, you start to see posts from other members of the Group, even if you don't know them.

This area seems to be a mess, especially if you consider the desktop-only Google+ Hangouts, mobile-only Google+ Huddles, or the options available from other services (mailing lists, Twitter Lists, and Facebook Groups, oh my!).

Yet Another Walled Garden

No matter how great Google+ is, if I can't use it to keep in touch with my friends, what's the point? This is a tricky problem to solve, since you'll never get all the people in one place. As I said before, content without people isn't social.

With fragmented social graphs, there needs to be a smart way of irrigating the various walled gardens. For Google+ to get into a good (non-Buzz-like) position, it needs to allow users to keep in touch with their friends in other places.

Google+ lacks content syndication (there's a 3rd party hack to turn Public posts into an Atom feed), but should fully embrace it. I would like to see other networks listed as places to push content. For example, if I want to post my travel plans to Google+ users in a specific city, I might also want to push them to Facebook so my parents can see where I'm going. Or maybe I'll want to push a funny joke or cool picture to Twitter. It doesn't hurt Google+ if the other networks get [more] content-without-people, and it would lead to more links and traffic to content on Google+. Essentially, Google+ needs to become the hub and turn everything else into a spoke.

What about my friends that post content to Twitter and Facebook? If I have to go to the other sites to get their updates, I'll end up spending more time on the site where more of my friends are. If Google+ lets my friends syndicate their content into Google+ (cue Tom Cruise sliding out in his tighty whities), I can keep up to date with what they're doing without going to the other sites. Didn't I previously oppose this concept? Well, content aggregation is Risky Business.

Google Buzz highlighted the signal-to-noise problem with aggregation, and enabling it for Google+ would have the same result. Don't just aggregate! Aggregation and Content Equality simply do not mix. Even without the Content Equality issue solved, Google+ is getting noisy (Side note: What's noisy? Is it too much content? No. It's too much uninteresting content versus interesting content ). Once addressing the Content Equality issue, aggregation can and should be considered.

Weighting Content

How can Google solve the Content Equality problem? Well, there's plenty of low hanging fruit, such as factoring in the percentage of friends a post was sent to (If you're one of 10 people included in a post that would otherwise be seen by 1,000, it's probably pretty relevant), or how frequently the author posts (If I post once per day, it's probably a more important post than an individual post from someone who posts 100 times per day), or maybe even the closeness of the contact (How frequently do we interact? Is the author in several of my circles?).

I'm wondering, though, if Google+ can incorporate other Google software. Specifically, Google has a Prediction API. Call it Artificial Intelligence, call it Machine Learning. I haven't messed with it, but it sounds like it should help determine certain things about a piece of text. Did something tragic happen? Is it about sports? Is it related to a topic I find absolutely interesting or incredibly boring?

Keep in mind that Content Equality doesn't mean we have to show or hide content based on certain parameters. As a data visualizationist, I have to point out that there are many different ways to highlight some content while deemphasizing other content. Many data visualization examples are very abstract, but the core principles can be applied here. When you visualize data, you change visual characteristics based on attributes of the data.

Currently, Google+ visualizes your friends' content by arranging the posts along the y-axis based on date of last activity. Otherwise known as the reverse chronological list view. There are other ways of sorting content, as Facebook and Reddit illustrate. You can also emphasize more important content with size, color, or visual cues.

Take a look at Gmail. Gmail shows email in a similar way, but has a few visual cues that help you spot what you're looking for without reading every item. For email addressed only to you, it'll show one type of indicator. For email addressed to you and others, it'll show a different indicator. Emails can include a label, which can have a specific color. If Gmail visualized email data in the same way Google+ visualizes friends' posts, your email experience would be abysmal.

This post has gone on far too long

There are plenty of things Google+ has going for it, but I strongly believe it has a way to go to get real sticking power. Ultimately, clusters of people will form around certain social networks. If you spend more of your time on one, you'll drift apart from friends who spend more of their time on another.

If you and your circle of friends are all on Google+, and if the group is of the right size, and if the group self-polices post quality and frequency, then Google+ is probably just fine as-is.

In order for Google+ to be the powerhouse it's poised to be, things will probably have to change. Fortunately, the Google+ team seems to be pretty responsive to community feedback. Fundamental design changes, however, will need to come from the top and be executed with vision, not as a reaction.

Obviously, I'm a little out of practice with my writing. This post is way too long and doesn't flow especially well.

cc: +Robert Scoble +Fausto Garcia
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