The key to Google+ is understanding the relationship between Circles and the Stream

July 9 2011 11:00:00 AM Comments Disabled
In the technology world if you blink you can miss the latest product announcement or service. While most of these are flash-in-the-pans that burn out after a few minutes of bright flames, Google's new social networking site Google+ is one that (for better or for worse) is here to stay, and something I think everyone should have at least a basic understand of.

The key to Google+ is understanding the relationship between Circles and the Stream.

Circles are your personal way to organize the people you interact with. By interact I mean a) the people who's posts you want to read and comment on and b) the people you want to share the things you post with.

When you first join Google+ you are provided a few default Circles (ex: Friends and Family) which are empty. At the top of the Circles screen is a list of people (don't ask about the "magic" that creates this list) that you can drag into Circles. For example, below I am adding Steve Wylie into a Circle I've named "Work Related".

Image:The key to Google+ is understanding the relationship between Circles and the Stream

Choosing how many Circles to create is a very personal topic and one that people tend to have strong opinions on. Before I explain how I've chosen to create my Circles, let me explain what Circles do, and don't do.

Circles Help You Filter Which Posts Are Displayed In The Stream

The Steam is where you read, create and comment on posts.  As seen below, there are 3 main views of the Stream:

1. The primary stream shows posts from all of the people you have in your Circles
2. Each of your Circles has its own stream, displaying the posts from the people in that Circle
3. Incoming, displays posts from the people who have you in one of their Circles but you don't yet have them in one of yours.  This is similar to your "Followers" in Twitter.

Image:The key to Google+ is understanding the relationship between Circles and the Stream

Circles Are Not Groups

Circles are not a shared space that people can join and are automatically mutually connected around a specific topic. For example, if you have a Photographers Circle, the people you add are not all automatically connected together, enabling everyone to share pictures and discuss photography related topics. Instead, Circles are your personal breakdown of how you want to see and share information. When you add someone to Circle they are notified that you have added them, but do not know the name of the Circle nor who the other members are.

Circles Determine Who You Share With

Well, sort of.

To set the stage, start by thinking about email, where you decide who the recipients are. There is no guarantee that they read the message, but you can be fairly certainly it showed up in their inbox. When you post a message on Twitter, you have very little control over who is reading it. You can choose to "Protect" your Tweets, which means only the people you approve as followers have access. In this model people have to choose to follow you, you don't decide who you're sending it to.

When you post a message on Google+, you choose who you "want" to share it with.

Image:The key to Google+ is understanding the relationship between Circles and the Stream

You can choose "Public" which makes the post show up in the main stream of anyone who's added you to a Circle (even if you have not added them) and the post will also be visible on your public Google profile.

You can choose a specific Circle or Circles (ex: Family, Friends, Coworkers, or Photographers) but just because you've chosen to share with these people, there is no a guarantee they will see it. If they also have you in one of their Circles, they will see your post in their main Stream. If they do not have you in one of their Circles they can still see your post, but it will be in their Incoming Stream.

You can also choose to share with your "Extended Circles". There is some complexity here, but the basic idea is that this shares your post with people in your Circles plus the people they have in their Circles... so friends of friends. Posts shared with Extended Circles reach a broader audience than just your own Circles, but are not available to everyone the way Public posts are.

So How Do I Set Up My Circles?

Notice the title of this section, "My Circles". I have no intent on lecturing you as to how you should set up your own Circles, but I will explain the though process behind how I've configured mine.

I start of by thinking about the relationships with the people in my life. I have family, friends from school, coworkers, people I share hobbies with, etc. There are some people I have very specific relationships with, and they go in one Circle. There are others who overlap across multiple facets of my life, so they are placed in multiple Circles. For me, mirroring the "real world" relationships via my Circles makes it easy for me to process the information I'm reading in the stream.

I'd estimate I currently spend 75% of my time in the main stream.  I then click through the streams of my Circles, or as I call them my sub-streams.

My Circles are:
  • Work Related - Currently this group overlaps about 90% with my main stream. This will change over time as Google+ opens up to the public and my friends and family start to join. I may separate this into "E2.0 World" and "IBM World" which is how I have Twitter setup, because the conversations in those two groups is often quite different.
  • My Family - Here I can quickly see what my siblings and cousins are up to. Only a few of them are currently on Google+, but this is the same way I use Facebook so I wanted to mirror it here.
  • Friends-Boston
  • Friends-Toronto
  • Sports-Golf
  • Sports-Ultimate

While there is no guarantee the topics being discussed in a Circle match its name, these Circles do provide me a "mental starting point" around who I expect to be seeing posts from. So if I'm interested in "What's going on with my Boston friends", I click on that list. They may be discussing computers, or golf or ultimate... but at least I start of with a nice mental picture of which subset of the people I am going to be looking at.

Configuring Circles will be different for everyone. My recommendation is to try and find the balance between being too granular which is a pain to manage and staying so broad that completely different conversations are all jumbled together.

There is no right or wrong, and the beauty is that you can tweak and adjust to find what works for you.