With “Circles”, Google May Have a Killer Social App
Yesterday, Google announced a bunch of new social features, grouped under the name "Google+". Some of them look nice enough, but it's going to take more than "nice enough" to prevent its being just another ho-hum Google Buzz.
Google Buzz fizzled because it was just Twitter warmed over. We already had our relationships established on Twitter, and that's where everybody else was, so who needed Buzz?
This time, however, Google's got something to drool over: Circles.
Circles solves a problem that's bugged me on Facebook and Twitter for a long time: every connection is in the same bucket. You're a friend or you're not. I follow you or I don't. You're in or you're out -- all or nothing. So whenever I post anything, you see it, no matter what it's about or what our real world relationship is. And when anyone I'm connected to for any reason posts something, it's all in my face in one big, messy in-box.
On Twitter, there are two ugly workarounds for this problem: multiple accounts and Lists.
Who are you talking to?
If you want to send different messages to different people, you can create multiple accounts and tweet different things to each.But (unless you're using an app that supports multiple accounts with one login) it's cumbersome. Log into one account. Tweet. Log out. Log into another account. Tweet. Log out.
And what if somebody belongs in multiple groups? To hear what you're saying to each group, they have to follow you multiple times. And if you tweet the same message to multiple groups, they see duplicates.
Who are you listening to?
On the other side of the equation, there are people you want a loose connection to, and people you really want to hear.
Some people fauxlow thousands and then either use an app or Twitter's "Lists" feature to only actually listen to a few of them. Both solutions work, but they're both bolted-on solutions that make "following" someone a lie.
Facebook is actually worse than Twitter. They only allow you to have one profile, so you have to break the rules if you want to segment your connections. Plus, they don't allow personal profiles to be used to promote businesses (which leads to more rule breaking). Sure, you can create a business page, but business pages work differently than profiles, so you have to learn a new system, and don't have all the capabilities you might want.
On Facebook, it's pretty much impossible to avoid getting friend requests from anybody and everybody who's ever so much as heard your name (family, friends, classmates, coworkers...). So unless you're going to ignore all those requests, or unless you want anybody and everybody to hear your shop talk, it's impossible to use it for business. I tried using it for business at first, but eventually deleted all but a select few of my business connections, tightened my privacy settings, and created a business page instead.
Let's not leave LinkedIn out. They're sort of like Facebook's other half. It's a business network, so at least you don't have to worry so much about old friends showing up and expecting you to chat about high school. But there's no way to segment colleagues from people you're building new connections to. If you accept a connection request, it looks to everyone else like you're claiming them as a colleague.
From what I can tell, Circles solves the problem that Twitter's Lists only hints at. While lists only segments your listening, Circles appears to segment the conversation both ways. It's clear that you can send messages to individual Circles, but less clear whether you have separate listening settings for each. For example, can you configure Circles to notify you when someone in your "family" or "close friends" Circle posts, but only show you messages from "classmates" when you go looking for them? If so, Google has nailed it with this feature.
The other important difference between Circles and Lists is the expectations they set. When you follow someone on Twitter, there's no top-of-mind understanding that they may not add you to the List that they actually listen to. So while that's a reasonable way to segment your "friends", it's not expected.
With Circles, everyone knows from the get-go that getting followed and getting into someone's inner Circle are two completely different things. So the act of connecting with someone can be entirely genuine, even if you have no intention of creating a close connection.
Can Facebook and Twitter adapt?
Of course, now that Google has shown the way, Facebook and Twitter have the option of following. But can and will they?
With Twitter, I think the mold is already set. When you talk, you talk to everyone. When you follow, you're either expected to listen or not. If you only follow a few people, you're expected to listen. If you follow hundreds or thousands, even your real-life friends know you're not listening...unless you're using Lists or a filtering app. So yeah, it's possible. But when it takes this many caveats to explain, you know it's too big a mess to ever get cleaned up.
Twitter would have to do a major, I mean MAJOR revamp before users could approach it with Circles-like expectations.
Facebook (and similarly, LinkedIn) could make a Circles-like adaptation. But it would probably require some serious retooling under the hood. And unless they decide to allow business and pleasure to mix in personal profiles, it'd still fall a little short. They'll probably do it, but how well they do it remains to be seen.
For now, Facebook has the upper hand. They're sitting at the top of the hill, and Google will have a difficult fight to compete (to say nothing of "unseat"). But with Circles, I think Google has finally come up with a feature compelling enough to get them into the game.