Google Circles

Aug 03, 2011

I started using Google Plus three weeks ago. I like it a lot; I think I’ll keep using the service. The UI works, a lot of my friends are already on it, but most importantly it solves a problem that has not yet been solved online: easy, logical information sharing.

Logical information sharing.

Information sharing is a two-piece puzzle. It’s about the systems behind the social graph (which trust me, can probably already figure out who my Virginia friends are and separate them from my Beirut friends), but even more importantly, my experience of knowing that the system can segment my friends into groups.

It’s cool if a system knows who is related to whom, but that’s only half of the puzzle. I, the user, have to know about this as well, and I have to have absolute trust in the system. I have to know the boundaries of my social circles, and I need an explicit agreement with the system that shows me who is in which group. For a while, I was skeptical of the answer being a better UI, but this might just be the winning solution.

It’s slightly uncanny, because up until this point, my claim is that Google Plus wins because the system can segment my friends into circles. This seems strange, because with all of Facebook’s engineering talent, they have to have been able to figure out how to do this automatically. Splitting people up into groups is a problem solved by computer scientists time and time again.

I recall watching a friend make a Facebook list - few people do it, but those who do it tend to be engaged with the lists for the long term. My hypothesis is that once a user knows who is and is not in a specific list (or circle, as we call it now), we will see medium-to-long term increases in that user’s engagement.

Posting something on facebook takes me a lot of thought; I deal with some internal strife. One must “write with their audience in mind”, which is absolutely true. Google Plus lets me segment my audience, which is why I like it a lot.

Systems are interesting - they’re about the underlying technology, but more importantly, the involved stakeholders (in this case: end users). Up until this point, nobody has created a system that lets the user feel in control of their social circles. Algorithms can easily match this, but my premise is that it’s more importnat for the user to feel some semblance of control. A user who knows exactly who is (and perhaps even more importantly, whois not) in a social circle, is more willing to share things.

I used to be an avid LiveJournal user. My friends and I were active livejournal users around the time we were in middle school and early high school (ages 13-16). I downloaded my old posts and was surprised to see what I was sharing. I went into every detail of my life. Everything, from the track meets I ran in, my academic performance, down to the girls I had a crush on. Even more interesting was the fact that out of over 1,000 posts, only 20 of them had no privacy settings whatsoever.

Only 20. That means that 98% of my interaction with LiveJournal involved posting content to specific groups. I was comfortable sharing everything because I knew that a rant about somebody, for example, would not get into that person’s feed.

I felt the same way yesterday. I posted something to Google Plus, into my California Social Circle. These are my San Francisco friends. Nobody from Beirut. Nobody from UVa. Only people who would find it relevant. Strangely enough, I felt completely comfortable doing it. Even more interesting was I had a lot more feedback than I would have gotten if I had put it on Facebook or Twitter.

Interesting! Sounds like the SNR is down. Well done, Google Plus.