A Circle is not a Space

July 13, 2011 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

ImageLike many people in the tech industry, I've been happily exploring and enjoying Google+ for the past week or so (thank you Susan Scrupski for the early invitation). I like the Google+ bar, polished integration with Google Profiles, Photos, and Video, as well as the new Huddle and Hangout capabilities. And I'm looking forward to Google+ integrated Search. Nov 20, 2015 update: Google's updated Community and Collection model finally gives Google+ something like a shared Spaces as well as email-like Circles. Keep reading for thoughts on why Circles never caught on. - grl

Google's Circle model was carefully designed, with a wonderfully polished interface for adding folk to Circles and creating new Circles. Google is encouraging active discussion, feedback and suggestions on how Google+ should evolve. That said, I've also followed more than a few Google+ discussions in which people get confused by what the current Circle model is versus what the word "Circle" means to them.

I think it's easiest to understand the Circle model by comparing it directly to email lists. This post illustrates that analogy, with my analysis of the Circle model's strengths and weaknesses, and how it might evolve.

My Google+ Foodie Circle Example

If I create a Circle named Foodies and include all my foodie friends, I can post restaurant photos and notes that can only be read by folk I've included in my Foodies circle, hidden from the public. They can comment on what I post, and their comments can be seen by others named in my Foodie circle.

This means:

1) You can't add yourself to my Foodies circle. I'm the only person who can add people to my own Circles.

2) When you look at my Profile, you don't know what Circles I may have added you to. You see either: a) I haven't added you to any Circle (I won't even see your Public posts in my Google+ stream), or b) You are in Greg's circles too. If you're in at least one of my Circles, I will see anything you post to Public or to one of your Circles that include me.

3) You don't know the names of any of the Circles I have created. For all you know, I may have Circles named Saints, Sinners, and Bozos as well as Foodies.

4) You don't know the names of those Circles of mine of which you're a member. You may be both a Saint and a Foodie.

5) You can't treat Foodies like a Twitter Hash tag. It's not the label of a topic that categorizes my posts in a way that is meaningful (or visible) to anyone but me. It's [currently] a set of people to whom I can choose to address a specific post.

So when I create a Foodies Circle, you can't follow or block posts I make to that Circle (a common request).

You don't even know that my Foodies circle exists unless I tell you about it. So you can't "follow just my Foodie posts" without Google+ allowing me to share at least some of my Circle definitions, and giving you the ability to follow just those posts rather than everything I publish.

And when I'm on my Google+ Streams Page, clicking Foodies doesn't show me posts I or others have made "about" food - it just shows me the list of all public or limited distribution posts made by people I put in my Foodies circle. Foodies is a set of people, not a topic or a shared Space.

It's also not [currently] possible for a group of friends to create a public Google+ Circle that people can follow, join, or leave on their own. As a variation on this theme, different types of public Circles might have open membership, moderated membership (to keep out the spambots), or membership by invitation only.

Adding public Circles would create a kind of shared Space model, where everyone who is a member of the same Space gets (at least) permission to see what other members of the same Space post. The globally known (or selectively shared) name of a Space like Foodies would then create a shared room or context for people to talk or work within, implicitly sharing access with other members. Traction TeamPage builds on and extends a Space model to provide permissions, tags, and context for business activities, see Borders, Places and Spaces.

The current Circle definition and possible extensions are pretty clear to folk who get deeply into sharing models (including yours truly). But details of the Circle model seem pretty complicated when you try to write them down, draw pictures, or explain them. Part of the problem is the power of the word Circle.

"Circle" is so powerful that I think a lot of people hear it as something acting more like a shared Space than how Google+ currently works: Circles act like email lists. Thanks to John Tropea for the Google+/Email analogy in his Google Plus : Closed group email collaboration done online of 8 Jul 2011.

A Google Circle is Like a Personal Email List

Google+'s Circle model provides a way for you to share specific conversations with a set of people who you select, who may choose to listen to what you say, and who can comment back to you and others who share the same conversation.

1) You address a Google+ post to a specific set of individuals or to a named Circle (email list) when you create a post. A Google+ Public post can potentially be read by anyone (cc: the World).

2) If people to whom your post is addressed decide to listen to you (they name you in at least one of their Circles), they'll see your post in their input stream. Otherwise they'll need to look at their Google+ Incoming stream to read posts addressed to them from you and other people they don't already "follow". Reading Google+ Incoming feels like reading a low-priority email folder vs reading your standard or Circle filtered stream.

The list of your Circles shown on your Google+ Stream page looks something like a list of incoming email folders. Actually it's a way to show incoming posts from people listed in that Circle: Click a Circle to see all of their Public posts and limited distribution posts addressed to you. As an input filter, Circles don't organize posts by topic (like an email folder), but by sets of people.

3) Commenting on a post is like replying to a specific email message. People who can see the original Post can see the additional comments. The current Google+ presentation becomes noisy when a famously popular person writes a post which attracts an endless stream of "me to" or spammy comments (see G+ comment stream discussion below).

4) You can't change the Circle to which a post is addressed. Like the email list of an outgoing message, the selected Circle or specific folk addressed by a post are fixed when you send it. However, unlike email you can retroactively edit members of the Circle to add or remove folk, as well retroactively edit your own post or comment.

5) When you Share a Google+ post from someone else, it's like you're sending a copy of the original post to a different set of people (the Circle you select), but without the original post's comments. This is analogous to forwarding an email to a different group after stripping out any embedded replies.

Each Shared copy then accumulates its own independent set of comments, visible to the people to whom the new Share was addressed, including resharing a private message to the general Public. Google quickly added an option that the original author can use to disable Sharing of specific posts, and a reminder that resharing of limited distribution posts can be a violation of confidence. But like an email message that's copied and forwarded many times, comments on Shared posts quickly become fragmented.

GMail, Wave, Buzz, Google+ Circles - Email messaging is the model

I believe GMail, Wave, Buzz, and the Circle model of Google+ all share DNA from Google's email culture and the GMail product:

... there are literally tens of thousands of special interest groups that can range in size from two to more than 1,000 members and cover topics from wine to hiking to quilting to Dungeons & Dragons. There are the Gleeglers (who sing a cappella); the Dooglers, who bring their dogs to work; the Snowglers (skiers); and the Skeptics (who question everything). There are groups for pilots, expectant moms and photographers, and a group for Googlers who like flea markets. There's even a group for former startup employees whose companies were bought by Google and who may struggle to navigate a company where they must be both entrepreneurs and employees.

Any employee can start a group -- in fact, employees are encouraged to, said Stacy Sullivan, Google's chief culture officer, a title bestowed by the founders. Most groups have an email "alias" on Google's vast intranet system, such as "bowling@google.com." Google has more than 100,000 group aliases in its Intranet system, although not all groups are active.

For employees, the groups "have been kind of anchors and havens and think tanks -- to actually be able to build their own community, just for their own support and interactions, within the mass of all Google," Sullivan said. As Google has grown, "I think it's become much more important because when you're this big, you can lose sight of being connected to the mass around the world. So this is one way they can all pull together."

From At Google Groups are key to the company's culture
by Mike Swift, San Jose Mercury News, 23 Jun 2011

Google+ Circles avoids the Buzz assumption that your social network could be gathered and publicized by analyzing the your email contacts - an assumption that might have worked internally for Google, but which caused a firestorm of protest and legal action when Buzz launched. But the Buzz presentation model of a top level Post and its comment tree as the unit of conversation, floating to the top of your stream every now and then, carries over to Google+.

Google+ Circles provide a much more refined model of selective sharing. However, in my opinion the Circle sharing model works much better for Facebook style sharing of friends and neighbor conversations - a post by an individual and its comments - than it does for Twitter's fast paced global stream of conversation fragments which interleaves the equivalent of posts, comment (replies) in one stream that's easier to scan, particularly when a post may collect tens or hundreds of comments.

Twitter connects fragments by tags. Twitter also implements a socially refined retweet and reply permission model that works better than Google's for that purpose: in Twitter you only see replies if you are following both the person who posted and the person who makes the reply. This has signifiant value for conversation and signal to noise in a large public Commons. See "Option of Latest Posts Discussion" below.

A Circle is not a Space

For work, the current Google+ post and comment presentation can become noisy and unpredictable, repeatedly showing promoted posts based on recent comments from any source, and repeating Shares that fragment comment threads. A presentation choice that favors a top level post and comments, rather than a stream of post and comments (with link back to the conversation in context) is a presentation choice, not a fundamental limit.

More significantly, the current Google+ Circle model makes it difficult to see what's happening in the context of a business activity - tapping into a stream of posts, comments, replies, actions, and actions. For business activities, the stream of actions and conversation in a shared Space provide a natural framing context and natural boundary for permissioned access.

For example, a Space shared by members of law firm and Client A naturally frames and protects work and conversation in that context while also protecting it from disclosure to any other client. A shared Space, tag, and activity stream model is simpler to understand and use for work and conversation with groups that share a purpose and common expectation of privacy.


JP Rangaswami is currently experimenting with three different formats for three purposes:

Playing with formats. Twitter as short form frequent. google plus as longer form, one per speaker at TED. Blog as even longer, one per event) 12 Jul 2011 @Jobsworth

He's also experimenting with a Google+ Circle workaround to allow people to opt in to his conference liveblog posts. You post a comment back to him, he adds you to the Conferences circle he'll use for his liveblog posts. In this case, JP's intent is to allow folk to throttle down the volume of his liveblogging posts appearing in their stream, rather than make those posts private. See "Circles should be created by Publishers as well as Subscribers" discussion below.

The Google+ preview is just about a week old, and Google is actively asking for feedback and suggestions, which has led to lively discussions on how Circles might evolve. And when Google+ integrated search appears (soon), I expect it will be permission-aware, which will be a game changer. Enough balls are in the air to make me rethink for Commons, Neighborhood and Work players in Explaining Twitter - One of Three Places for People - stay tuned!

See links and Google+ discussion (gathered from G+ and all over)

JP Rangaswami, Google+, 12 Jul 2011 (Public)
I'm experimenting …

JP Rangaswami - I'm experimenting. Seeing if I can avoid making noise in people's streams by giving them subscriber-level choices on subsets of my stream. For the next few days I will be covering TEDGlobal, but the updates will only reach those who ask me for them. If you asked me, and you don't start receiving them in a short while, do let me know.

Yes I know the way I've done it is messy (creating a publisher circle and then manually adding people to that circle as they ask to be included) but I could not find s simpler way. Let us see.

John Tropea, Library Clips blog, 8 Jul 2011
Google Plus: Closed group email collaboration done online

Greg Lloyd, Google+, 6 Jul 2011 (people in my Circles only)
G+ comment streams on public posts by popular folk are problematicI can't Share this to Public without losing comments, but here's the main point:

Greg Lloyd - Interesting - and encouraging - to see improvements to adaptive boost of posts based on new comments. Today a 5 hour old +Sergey Brin scenic photo post ~ sticks in place as older post despite a continuous patter of "nice photo!" comments from folk I don't know or follow.

Not clear what the promised comment weighting stream boost adjustment was. Social / follow weighted, linguistic or other, but helps S/N for public posts by famous folk whose patter of friendly, log rolling or spam comments would never die. Google+ needs to fix this before it's gamed to spoil the Public commons.

Followed by:

About 30 minutes after post thanking Google for promised improvement in comment boost to reduce noise based on "non-relevant" comment, a 5 hour old +Sergey Brin photo popped to the top of my mobile and desktop stream with a recent "Cool Man!" comment. No intervening comments from folk I follow in those 30 minutes that I can see.

+Sergey Brin Still getting flooded with tortoise pictures and the like. More recent pyramid pictures are an improvement, but please keep pushing for improvement.

See "flooded by tortoise pictures" discussion

JP Rangaswami, Google+, 10 Jul 2011
In G+, Circles should be created by "publishers" as well as "subscribers"

JP Rangaswami - I guess I'm warped. What I really want is to break myself up, classify myself, into a series of circles: cloud, food, music, books, cricket, politics, hippieness, freedom, whatever. Then others who put me into their circles can choose to put bits of me or all of me. Publisher circles are like hashtags and channels. Subscriber circles are filters and balancers. That combination creates the best signal-to-noise ratios

Jeff Jarvis, Google+, 4 Jul 2011 (public)
... I still want the option of only the latest posts, regardless of comment tagging.

Greg Lloyd - I'd also welcome a pure chron option, with one click to take me to the full post and comments for context when I want it.

For promotion or pure chron, imo Twitter asymmetric reply clip is pretty effective. E.g. Twitter rule that mutes replies from your stream unless you follow both parties. Although I originally opposed the change, I've grown to like it.

Without a pure time ordered option (and jump to full thread) or a hard clip, promoting a post from famously popular person will always be problematic when thousands of "me too" comments pile on. That was my major beef with Buzz. I guess I need so see what Google+ does with rank.

... Jennifer Forman Orth - So, basically, no one's ever going to see this comment :-). How does this foster networking, especially for the Technorati who cultivate these large clusters of folks they do not know to follow them? If I figure no one's going to read what I say, what is the incentive to comment?

Greg Lloyd - Jennifer - A valid point, but IMO the recourse is social. With Twitter, Jeff or someone else may rt or "publicly" reply to you and a wider non-clipped audience by prefixing your handle with a character. This subtly raises the visibility of particularly good comment based on human judgment, polite recognition, and an invitation to a larger audience to read more of what you say.

Greg Lloyd - Taking this conversation as something close to a best case, about 50% of the comments are "I agree" or restate the original point. This from a group of bright and eager early adopters. When the number of Google+ folk increases by three or four orders of magnitude - not counting bots - the bounce will become ludicrously noisy, like Buzz. That's not conversation, that's Brownian motion. Selectively following a reasonably large number of diverse, curious and intelligent folk with a sense of humor is the only scalable filter I know that balances breadth vs S/N. I want to leverage their judgement to surface interesting discussion and as well as talent scouts for who else to follow

Sergey Brin, Google+, 4 Jul 2011 (Public)
… getting flooded by comments on [ five year old ] tortoise pictures

Sergey Brin - I think a lot of people are under the misimpression that I am posting photos of exotic places at a furious pace to Google+. Actually, I have had a bunch of albums public for some time on my picasaweb page. However, people only started to take note recently thanks to Google+ and when they comment on those photos they end up in the streams of people who have me in their circles.

We made some ranking changes recently that demote such comments if the commenter is not in your circles. Let me know if you are still getting flooded with tortoise pictures and the like.

Ross Mayfield, Slideshare, 5 July 2011
Visual Guide to Circles in Google+

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