Google Plus and The Social Media Moonshot

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.)