Google Plus and The Social Media Moonshot

by Andrew McAfee on July 21, 2011

Like a lot of other people, when I first started using Google Plus I was most intrigued by its notion of circles — groups of people you establish based on whatever criteria you like. G+ lets you pick which circle(s) receive your updates, and also which ones you listen to.

But after a bit of experience with the technology (which I still like a lot) I noticed that I was almost always selecting ‘public‘ for my updates. I was, in other words, broadcasting them to the world, not to any more constrained circle. And I listen to my ‘tech folk’ circle once in a while, but am more likely to use the built-in sparks feature on G+ to get updates from the mainstream media (MSM) on topics like ‘big data,’ ‘business technology,’ ‘robotics,’ and ‘recession.’

So I’m using G+ to contribute social content very broadly, and to consume MSM content. This is probably not what its designers envisioned. What’s going on?

A large part of it is that, as kev/null points out, it’s really difficult to organize the people in our lives in a way that makes sense for most purposes, especially over time. So circles take a lot of thought, and a lot of tending. And more fundamentally, they require me to specify in advance who the right audience for my content is.

Sometimes this is a great thing to do. Each of my work projects, for example, has its own set of issues, updates, and content. These should be segregated, for reasons of both privacy and clarity. So project circles make all the sense in the world, especially if G+ becomes more tightly integrated over time with Gmail, Google calendar, apps, and so on. Circles, in short, could be a great boon to enterprises and small groups of collaborators.

But I don’t think circles work well for content I want to share more broadly. In fact, I think they’re counterproductive. As I’ve said a bunch of times, I believe that specifying your audience in advance is a fundamentally misguided approach for non-confidential content. Doing so reduces the chances for serendipity and lowers the chances that you’ll meet someone new as a result —  that you’ll convert a potential tie into an actual one. If you want to narrate your work (thanks, Dave Winer) or broadcast your search (thanks, Karim Lakhani), then you want to do so as broadly as possible to maximize the chances of  being helpful to someone else, or being helped.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it’s noisy. A lot of what I broadcast is not going to be useful or interesting to you, and vice versa. My Facebook News Feed, TweetDeck ‘All Friends’ column, and default G+ Stream all have some great content in them and I check them a lot. But often when I do I realize how right Voltaire was when he said “The secret of being a bore is to say everything.” I get sharp thoughts and pointers to stuff I never would have found on my own, but I also get stuff I have zero interest in (you thought last night’s episode of The Bachelorette was disappointing? Fascinating!) or am not in the mood for (it’s nice that your child had a big smile when you dropped him off at daycare this morning and I’d love to hear more about it, later).

At its best, social media these days is like having, as the writer Margaret Atwood put it, fairies at the bottom of the garden. At its worst, it’s like having narcissists shout in your ear all day. Making it more the former and less the latter is social media’s greatest challenge at present —  its moonshot.

My only suggestion for accomplishing this mission is to sharpen the tools that let us categorize not our people, but our posts. I maintain two different personal blogs because I imagine that the people who are interested in my work-related thoughts and my nonwork ones are at least somewhat different groups, and I don’t want to burden people who are interested in technology with my insights(?) on baseball, poetry, and crosswords.

I’d love it, though, if I had one good space for posting all the thoughts I wanted to share, along with a good way to signal what each post was about. And I’d love that space even more if it let me select what kind of thoughts / posts I’d receive from other people at a given time, and exclude all others. So I could take one quick break during the day and get ‘technology’ thoughts and curation from my social network (i.e. not just from the MSM), then later take another one to get ‘Red Sox’ stuff, then still another to get ‘personal’ updates. Then I really would feel like I had a posse of badass fairies at the bottom of my garden, instead of a madding crowd just outside my door.

Doing this in a way that’s simultaneously robust, lightweight, and intuitive will not be easy, but moonshots never are. A tagging system for posts would be helpful here, as would clouds of popular tags (so you’d know how to label your post to maximize chances it’d be read) and automated tag suggestions.

I predict that the first social networking tool that lets its users effectively and efficiently separate the signal from the noise will be the next one to really take off. This is quite different than letting users segregate the people in their networks with ever-greater precision. We really want better ways to filter, sort, and prioritize people’s content, not the people themselves.

What do you think? Do you want more ability to differentiate your people, or their ideas? What improvements do you long for in G+ and other social media tools? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

(And thanks to Susan Scrupski for getting me started thinking about this issue. If you’re interested in technology, she should be one of the people you listen to.)

  • http://twitter.com/thevarnish Matt Varney

    Completely agree.  Afterall, it is the content of the message(s) that matters most. The messenger can provide some context to that message, but only in some lited ways.  In the end, it is the content that you care about, so it should be the content that drives the way everything is organized. 

  • http://www.compliancebuilding.com Doug Cornelius

    Don’t forget that even though you may put all of your updates into the full public, people have you in circles and may be filtering you. 

    I think circles allow you to cross-fertilize interests without overwhelming your connections with noise.  Everything has the possibility to be public, but I put things with a broader appeal in public, with more focused and or repetitive information in the circles.

    For example, I realize that most people do not share my love of the Tour de France. So I put some of the cycling updates public, but limit most of them to a circle that has shown some interest in cycling.

  • http://twitter.com/sumitmund Sumit Mund

    I am totally with you “…sharpen the tools that let us categorize not our people, but our posts” I would love the facebook or twitter as it is but with superb tools to show me what I want. A few start ups doing good work showing only pics/videos or news shared by friends in FB. I am a great lover of hash tags of twitter – I follow #e20 and #socbiz regularly. And I liked your example and approach very much on separate blog for personal and professional stuff – I would like to read your every write ups on E2.0 but none on baseball (sorry for that!) – well for this I can add you two different circles in Gplus say ‘Following’ and ‘E2.0′ to filter what I want to see but don’t think that’s good idea either!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=402377 Josh Dormont

    I’m glad you’re also seeing big potential for G+ in the enterprise. I’ve heard that they have plans to make G+ available for Google Apps business users, so this is good news.

    As for the type of input/output filtering you’re talking about, this should be totally doable if G+ integrated tagging/topics like on Twitter, blogs, etc. Think about WordPress. If you set up several categories on your blog, and if RSS feeds can get sophisticated enough to just pick up feeds matching a certain category, then you’re all set. I don’t think you’re too far from this vision.

    For more on G+ in the enterprise: http://wp.me/p1CWCg-30 

  • http://orchestra.com gentry

    i really appreciate G+’s notion of circles, but less for production than for consumption. personally i tend to share stuff with “extended circles”, i.e. virtually publicly, so circles helps very little there. but i love filtering the (incoming) stream based on circles: do i really want to see pics of some kid’s birthday whose dad i met at a conference?

  • JDeane

    Interesting thoughts, Andy. May I boldly suggest that people not only share their comments here, but for Google+ current users to share those thoughts with Google+ itself, through the site’s feedback forms–this is why they’ve “invited” us, after all, before the push to the general public; to tell them what works, what doesn’t, and presumably what we’d like to see, so that the final released product will be more of what people want. They *are* listening.

  • Henry Singer

    I think there are two perspectives intertwined here, that of the producer of content and that of the consumer of content.

    As a producer I like the ability to select the audience for my content – I see the Circles as a means to have G+ replace three platforms - Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter.  Since I use FB for friends and LinkedIn and Twitter for professional relationships, I will at times select only some Circles for a particular posting.  I may also choose for some folks to be in more than one Circle. 

    As a consumer I am hoping that my connections are also choosing who to share with carefully. 

    I believe that tagging content is essential to helping me to find the items that interest me.  As a Jive user I rely on their “watch multiple tags” widget to serve me with content from the community that is of interest to me, regardless of whether or not I am connected to the producer.  Something similar to Sparks, but with the ability to limit to G+ content may fit the bill.  

    Serendipity lives and I find the new connections that I need to find.

  • Richard Rashty

    I also tend to broadcast updates to Public, with few of those updates expressly for specific circles.  While I try to broaden my Social Network, Public postings creates noise…BUT it could give others a reason to throttle back the stream; which could negatively impact my ability to reach them..and provide some possible value to the platform…So is the problem the circles of people, or do we need circles of postings?  Maybe a site where one subscribes or exposes themselves to specific types of information, rather than gets all posts from everyone..

    I guess the perfect platform has yet to be discovered, but as humans who are imperfect, is that a possible conclusion to all this social noise vs. value?

    Good Post Andy…thanks for sharing

  • R R Dasgupta

    My view is “Yes” we definitely need to differentiate.. based on circles or audiences who we want to reach out to. We want “signals” not “noise”

  • http://twitter.com/MarkAEvertz Mark A. Evertz

    Andrew,
    I’ve had similar thoughts about this issue rattling around in my head pre- and post G+ In truth, for me G+ is becoming just one more outpost to scour for info and interact with people or words. Which is, at the moment, more annoying than helpful.

    That said, I can’t see getting rid of any one tool because I use them all for different things, despite some overlap. So now it’s email, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, blogs I subscribe to,  social business applications to keep me in synch at work and  5 new streaming music apps that are uniquely awesome in their own ways for different uses.

    So in one sense G+ is — for me anyway, despite what appears to be an effort to become the next Facebook for the Enterprise — adding yet another tool to my already crowded toolbox. What I needed,  until I started working where I work now, was a tool that brought all of these tools together and filter the knowledge pouring out of them into  topics. From there, using the same system, I can also kick out relevant dispatches to people based on their individual interests.

    So, the answer to your question “Do I want to differentiate my  people or my ideas?” I may be greedy, but I want both. Shoot me a note if you want to see if what I’m doing to address this.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  • http://twitter.com/dgreller Dan Greller

    Andrew…thanks for another thoughtful post on a topic that is top of mind for many folks.  I agree with your notion that restricting non-confidential content is antithetical to the notions of collaboration and knowledge sharing that are central to web 2.0.  Leave it up to the reader to decide whether to “tune in” to your posts and explore them.  That said, I agree that tagging and search are two badly needed features within G+.  Additionally, I think that most professional folks using G+ need a minimum of three types circles:  Private/Personal (Typically Friends and/or Family), Professional (Thought leadership – Public) and Personal Affiliations (e.g. Softball Team, Car Club).  Segmenting this way provides broad distribution and access to your key professional ideas while targeting the annoying chatter from your personal life to those “who need to know”.

    Dan Greller
    Invisible Laws Blog
    http://www.dangreller.com

  • http://cflanagan.wordpress.com/ Claire Flanagan

    Andy, I think you hit something on the head here . . .
    “I predict that the first social networking tool that lets its users
    effectively and efficiently separate the signal from the noise will be the next
    one to really take off.”

    I want fine grain control of my noisy stream. I don’t want to second guess who
    I publish to (as you also suggested). But as a consumer, I sure as heck want to
    filter the stuff. This is one of the reasons why I like TweetDeck, a very
    simple premise but the only one that really works.

    For work we have a very fancy social software tool – and I fear they too will
    be removing the fine grain end user control that allows one to control how they
    want to get updated, from what topics and how often. That’s truly sad. In this
    age we, as humans, are all getting much more chatty.  I don’t want the tools to second guess my
    filter rules, no computer is that smart to know what I want when I want it. No
    matter how much money they throw at the algorithm.

    Anyway, this has been on my mind for awhile. I, too, really like G+. But when
    I’m done working my 75 hours for the week, the last thing I want to do is watch
    more professional discussion – I want to find “People who make me
    Laugh” in my stream. :)

    (By the way, kudos to Disqus for letting me sign in with Twitter and NOT have to read my DM stream. It’s the first integrated app I’ve accepted recently for that reason!)

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    The messenger can provide some context to that message.

  • Lars Gustavsson

    I like to be able to filter on user, and content. I am for instance interested in what you share about E2.0 in G+, but would be less interested in your crosswords or baseball.
    But I think that the circles for listing and broadcasting are/should be different.
    At a first glance this would be easy to implement with using folksonomy tagging of posts – but it would turn quite messy for the receiver. More thinking needed before we can reach the good balance in filtering.

  • http://www.quality-web-programming.com/web-programming.php Graham

    Huuuum that will be great, so when you are planning to start the updation ????? Moreover are you attached with Google ????? if not then how you will be allowed to do so ??????
    But excited to see the MSM functioning…….

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    G+ has made some SM equations rattled but, I thing think there is all together a different group of people who like circles it give a direct competition to Linkedin. If you see the features of G+ offers nothing exiting to me. Though youngsters might find circle and handout to be more enjoyable. I agree that spark has been a good feature implemented but let me tell you it is nothing but the Google alert, If you subscribe to Google alert on certain topic and see the Spark both has same info. 

  • ataylor

    It is gratifying to see that we were coming to the same “conclusion” of sorts, or at least agreeing on one potential path to resolve this commonly-felt issue – tagging our posts or feeds or commentaries, and especially the “clouds of popular tags” concept.  I believe tagging – the concept and the usage – is totally under-appreciated, and is far more applicable than is realized.
    Thank you for a very good article.

    Aaron Taylor

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    The best google+ search engine to search on google plus is http://www.pluserize.com 

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