Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How To Fix Google+ Circles

What's the difference between what Google+ does and what I do now? Let me explain, and in so doing point to a way to 'fix' Google+.

Before Google+ I had several streams of content:
- OLDaily, which consisted of short posts documenting and commenting on issues and advances in learning tech and new media
- Half an Hour, which contains longer pieces and articles on everything from local politics to learning theory
- Twitter, which contains short blurbs, thoughts, links to my posts and to posts that interets me
- Email, containing personal messages to people, and compies of my newsletter; some emails went to discussion lists, including private discussion lists at the office
- Google Reader Share, consisting almost entirely of political and issues-oriented links
- Flickr, consisting of my photos and photo sets
- Let's Make Some Art Dammit, containing flickr photos, videos, graphics and other art
- OLDaily Audio, my podcast feed, based on the 'Presentations' page on my website
- Ed Radio, my streaming audio server I populate with audio recordings of videos, talks, live conference events, online events, etc

OK, there's probably more, but you get the idea. It's not simply that I'm one of those people who can't stop creating, it's that my creations (like everyone else's) are arranged, mostly by happenstance, into various channels.

On Google+, these channels are called "circles", and the idea is that I can direct my contributions to whatever circle is most appropriate, and it will go to the right people.

But there are two things wrong with Circles.

1. Content addressed to a circle has limited distribution within the circle. If I want the wider public to see the content, it has to go into the 'Public' circle. As a result, for the most part, everything I create in G+ goes into the one circle.

2. People can't follow my circles, they can only follow me. This means a person getting my content through G+ gets _all_ my content, even if they're only interested in photos.

In other words, there's no way for me to present different facets of myself to the wider world, and no way for the wider world to select from those facets. So while Google+ gives me very fine-grained tools to direct private content to individual audiences, it gives me no tools to direct public content to appropriate audiences.

So, I want two types of circles: private circles and public circles. Private circles remain as they are now, while public circles function just like private circles, except that content sent to them is 'public', and people can subscribe to one of more of my circles instead of to all my content.

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I don't think I would support the idea of G+ taking the place of my blogs or other content sources - I'm distributed and I like being distributed, especially as it allows me to add mew media or new forms of content as I learn more or as my tastes change. So I will not abandon the Stephen's Web pages, nor the Blogger blog, nor Flickr photos, and the rest.

So the other side of what I had to say above is that I want a nice way to stream content in from these other sources into Google+. In other words, G+ becomes a subscription mechanism, a way for people to follow my many activities wherever they are. Now - I am not at all sure this is what Google has in mind; they would like to have everyone create content on the Google platform. But it must be at least part of it, as I can easily see the share feature in Google Reader being attached to G+, or Blogger blogs, or Google Docs, etc.

But this is what makes the subscription circles proposal so important. Because if G+ aggregates all my feeds and streams into this one location, it dis-differentiates them (is that a word?). It merges them all into one uber-feed. And it raises the question of how my content from outside the Google properties can be shared in the same environment.

This is tricky, and Google needs to be careful. One of the most commonly expressed feelings about circle I've read on G+ thus far (and I've read a _lot_ of G+ comments over the last few weeks) is that they are glad people can't machine-post into circles and G+ generally the way they do in Twitter. And they have a point. Twitter has a major problem with spam. The spam has made any subject-based search on Twitter useless. When I search my own name, for example, all I find are auto-generated tweets about some MMR fighter, some artist and some British footballer.

But that's why subscribed circles are important. If people can subscribe to circles, not just people, they can obtain a very fine-grained system for searching. And it's one which (via connections) could be expanded - 'search subscribed circles only', 'search cubscribed circles + 1 degree of separation', '2 degrees', etc. up to 'entire web'. The spam would have to penetrate the circles, and it's not going to do that, because who would subscribe to a spam feed?

There is, finally, one other side to this, and if Google does it (and I think they might) they will destroy Facebook and Twitter - or, better, transform them utterly. And that would be to do all this openly. If they do this openly, it would be like they took RSS, made it a lot more flexible, added author attribution to everything, and applied it to social networks. And that would be outstanding.

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