Circles not lists – Google+ people management

By Matt Cornock

In this second post of three covering Google+ (Google Plus), I’ll be looking at the way Google’s use of the ‘circle of friends’ metaphor is more appropriate than existing contact management options in other social networking sites. See previous post for an overview of what makes a social network and how Google+ fits into that concept.

Google+ Circles

As mentioned previously, Google+ is a very much pared down social network focusing on people and the connections between them. It’s no surprise then that their contact management system is very finely grained, though the actual handling of contacts is very simple. Contacts are grouped in ‘circles’. Grouping contacts then enables quick communication to different social circles, including restricting posts on your profile to different circles.

There are some default circles, with Google+’s basic descriptions (shown below) to help people sort their contacts accordingly:

  • Friends: your real friends, the ones that you feel comfortable with sharing your private details with.
  • Family: your close and extended family, with as many or as few in-laws as you want.
  • Aquaintances: a good place to stick people you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to.
  • Following: people who you don’t know personally, but whose posts you find interesting.

Users can also create their own circles (so I’ve created one for different groups of people I work with, e.g. web, elearning, photography). The names of the circles are also not visible to the people within them – this can be helpful and is very diplomatic. Adding contacts to circles is as easy as dragging and dropping:

Google+ Screenshot of the Circles page on a profile.

Screenshot of a Google+ Circles page, note that contacts appear as boxes which can be dragged into circles

Venn loves circles

One of the big advantages is that people can be put into multiple circles. This means that quite complex social networks which aren’t possible with text-based, linear lists (as in Facebook), and are really easy to visualise and manage. Your contacts can now been seen clearly as both work colleagues and friends, and you can share things with a particular cluster of friends that perhaps other friends and family just night not understand.

Visually representing circles as venn diagrams

It’s no wonder that Google+ uses the venn diagram as the logo to access the Circles page

Google was very clever though in using the circle metaphor. It directly taps into the way that we think of the people we know. We cluster our friends, relatives and aquaintances together into different groups – either by interest or how we’ve met them as two examples. Facebook uses groups and primarily ‘lists’, however the way that they are presented in linear, text-based form doesn’t suit our mental image of a group of people in a huddle or circle. Lists impose a visual structure which represents an alphabetised queuing line, not similar to the way we think of our friends – unless you frequent Post Offices for social gatherings.

It’s also important to note that Google have put circles at the heart of contact management, it’s the primary contact management system. This again relates back to my comments in my previous post about Google being much more people-centric than Facebook. Facebook’s contact management is clunky, it’s even difficult to find the page where you can clearly see all your friends (friends logo top right – not the more intuitive link ‘Friends’ on the left – then select ‘See all friends’, then select ‘All friends’ where it by default says ‘Recently interacted’).

New opportunities

The opportunties don’t of course limit to social networking. Now, the ease of circle creation and drag and drop management means that for education and the workplace it becomes a whole lot easier to post items to your profile and share them with specific classes or colleagues. Great for keeping people up to date on projects. On the receiving end, if your contacts use circle-based posting wisely (something that could be required as part of a project/course-based approach to using Google+), this means that everything you see on your Google+ when you log in is directly relevant to you – no sifting through masses of BBQ invites and photos to get what you need. Alternatively, you can use your own custom circles and then use the links to the left of your Google+ Stream (equivalent to the Facebook Wall) to filter by circle.

This does contrast somewhat with Twitter, which makes no distinction when you Tweet something. When you post a Tweet it goes to everyone, and for me when I follow an expert in a topic I’m interested in I only really want to know about that topic, not their latest weekend past-time. However, Twitter is designed to be straightforward and to give you an insight into a person’s public identity, rather than offering complex selection methods that Google+ offers. Companies, for example, would use multiple Twitter accounts to post to only those followers that would be interested in particular branches of an organisation. With Google+ individuals can selectively post targetted messages to different groups of people, therefore the messages that go out can be more relevant and of more interest.

Google+ sharing settings for posts

Google+ has allowed finely-grained sharing settings on all posts and profile items based on individual users or circles

Google+ will need time

Hopefully, the web community will give Google+ time to grow. Social networks, circles, take an organic growth structure and I sincerely hope that the strength of Google+’s contact management will shine through above Facebook.

One improvement I would like to see is an integration between Google+ Circles and Googlemail/GMail contacts – providing a very slick method of emailing a circle. Email of course being preferred above +/FB posts for its opportunity to post long essays and attachments!

More info

For more information about circles, view Google’s Help page which includes a useful introductory video:

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