Where circles can go

Note: I originally shared this with a limited circle and it turns out I can't revise that later. So I'm posting it again publicly so people can see it and link to it. Dave

I am loving how circles help me organize my contacts, and I have been thinking about how Google can take circles to the next level. For all I know this is already in development.

Private circles

Google circles today are private. Only you can see them.

+Ross Mayfield has created an excellent slide deck that explains how circles work: http://www.slideshare.net/ross/visual-guide-to-circles-in-google-by-ross

One point he makes is that circles are asymmetric: Your circles are private, known only to you. Your connections can't see how you label them (and why would they want to?) This is (sort of) the way we organize social networks in our heads. For example, we have all made the mistake of inviting all of our friends to a party, only to discover that their networks don't overlap so easily, for example, imagine mixing your work friends with your family -- it's the rare event that can pull that off with any success.

So private circles might be neat or messy, depending on your taste. It's a bit of work to organize them, but Google knows enough about you to create a helpful wizard to do the majority of that sorting for you, which I hope they will do.

Public circles

A thread with +Beth Kanter and +Shannon Whitley (swhitley) got me thinking about where circles could go. Yes, there are the ways that you label people in your own head -- maybe the boundaries are fuzzy sometimes -- but there are also the ways that we organize into groups to do things.

Membership circles

One example is the membership group, something that people can select and join based on affinity. I've written a book called Gamestorming and am working hard to help build a community at http://gogamestorm.com where people can share best practices, contribute ideas and so on. A membership circle would be a perfect way to grow this community.

A membership circle could be public, private, or invitation only. We don't need to rethink groups too much, since there has already been a lot of great work done here. Consider Flickr Groups or Google Groups. Set it up, make people moderators and/or admins, and bippety boppity boop -- Group! Imagine your membership circles displayed on your profile page. They could look just like your private circles (maybe a different color?) except the label and a brief description is public. If it's a private group it's only displayed to those who are invited.

Membership groups have the advantage of being discoverable, so people could find them and join them. Imagine a membership group that people you went to high school with could find and join -- like classmates.com but with better conversations :)

Reading circles

Now I must admit that I like the idea of a reading circle because they do already exist in real life. A reading circle is more like a blog: One person sets it up and then publishes things to it. For example I have a Gamestorming blog, but why shouldn't it be a reading circle? This would make it easier for people to find the content in their streams and it would promote more engagement. I can imagine the conversations exploding. One thing I've noted about G+ circles is that the comment threads are often more interesting than the posts themselves.

Circles of conversation

Which brings me to a final thought: There's something about circles that promotes real dialogue and engagement. It's kind of like my favorite coffee shop, Meshuggah (http://www.yelp.com/biz/meshuggah-cafe-st-louis), where you can walk in and you will probably see someone you know -- but you don't know who. Then you might be having a conversation and someone from the next table interjects a point.

This is a bit strange for people who are used to having a private conversation, but it there is an ethos at Meshuggah that it's okay to connect in this way. And it sparks the most interesting connections and conversations I've had anywhere. I don't go to Meshuggah for the coffee, I go for the conversation. It's a rare but beautiful thing, and I am happy to see it starting to happen here on G+.

It doesn't come without risk. The ethos must be shared, and people have to respect each other. Sometimes two people want to have a conversation by themselves, or they just want to work quietly, and it takes a certain level of social awareness to navigate these nuances.

But I think +Yishan Wong is wrong when he says that Google doesn't get social (http://www.quora.com/Yishan-Wong/How-Google+-Shows-That-Google-Still-Doesnt-Understand-Social).

Wong feels that it's a violation when people "butt in" to his conversations with friends. Just because the conversation is public, he says, doesn't mean people should feel free to comment or join a conversation. He says it doesn't happen in the real world.

But in the real world this depends on context. At Meshuggah it's 100% okay. And in my opinion G+ isn't trying (and shouldn't try) to replicate the social ambiance of a busy city street or restaurant.

For me, G+ is a place to connect with people, share ideas, chat, and so on. It's not a private party but a space that can morph to be more or less intimate as the situation demands. It's the porous boundaries between my network and yours that Make G+ so special.

Just like at Meshuggah, you can meet old friends and make new ones just about every time you go. Or you can go upstairs where it's quiet and do your work, or just sit quietly and listen in on the conversations at the other tables.

This underscores the need for community management here on G+. The owner of Meshuggah is very skillful at managing the space for a certain mix of distance and connectedness. It's a sweet spot.

Small things like signs that say "No cell phones at counter" and "Please share tables" set the stage, and then he socializes in a way that says "I'm here and we can talk if you want, but I'm not going to intrude on your privacy either." These kinds of subtle signals are what will make G+ a super-special place.

A community like this has to be managed very lightly. The community mostly manages itself but the proprietor creates the space and sets the tone.

Googlers, I think you have got the tone pretty close to right. I know you've got a lot to roll out still, and I agree with +Robert Scoble that people need a way to filter the noise level so it's right for them. But the tone, the conversations, the mix of privacy and openness -- all that is pretty special and I hope you can retain it as G+ scales.

I can't wait to see things roll out, especially the synthesis of G+ with other Google products like email, groups, docs and so on.

Where do you think circles can go? What would you like to see happening here?
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