Where Google+ needs to go: Why we need to be able to follow parts of people’s personas


The centrality and ease of use of the Circles feature means Google+ is a significant step forward in social networking. It has been a key platform in its initial success.

The Circles feature enables people to selectively share content. Someone can send work-related discussions to their public stream, photos of their children to their family, and information about a boating event to their yacht club friends.

This effectively addresses privacy issues in allowing us to share both public and private information on the one platform, and not have to divide ourselves across different profiles.

However even our public personas have many facets. One person can be a leading software developer, music enthusiast, food lover, skier, and overall a lovable person. All of that is public – there are no constraints on sharing in any of those spaces.

Some people will want to follow everything that person shares. Many may be only interested in their thoughts on software development, and not care about the rest. Yet they have no choice – either they follow everything that person shares or nothing.

Gartner analyst and VP Brian Prentice brought this into focus in a recent Google+ post:

The latest person I’m deleting from my circles for crimes against the public stream is Jeremiah Owyang.

Jeremiah is one smart guy. And when he gets around to making an observation it’s usually pretty good. Unfortunately Jeremiah is more interested in uploading photos of pieces of sushi and sorbets and posing banal rhetorical questions for no apparent reason other than to generate a comment stream.

Circles aren’t just groupings of people. They are also an implicit grouping of content. If you want to share your thoughts about your favourite restaurants then do it with people who want to hear from you on that topic (assuming you know who those people are – a separate topic). When you start believing that every conscious thought that passes through your head deserves a public stream posting then you start entering into a world of conversational arrogance (the land of Twitter). You become someone who adds to the noise of our digital world instead of someone who cuts through it.

Later adding in response to a comment:

What I’m suggesting is that more onus needs to be put on the sender for their content. I put Jeremiah in a specific circle for industry pundits. So even if I select only that circle I still have a lot of content from Jeremiah on his feelings about sushi. That’s not why I’m interested following him. My only choice is to live with the inane commentary or to remove him completely. I chose the latter.

The simple solution is that if Jeremiah really wants to make all the food commentary he can create a food lovers circle and comment only to that group. Ah, but that puts the onus on Jeremiah to know who cares about his thoughts on food. It’s far easy to just make public postings – and that’s what he, and others are doing. The underlying message is “I’m so gosh darned important everyone wants to know everything I’m thinking about.”

The problem here Ross is that influence metrics – an issue of great importance to people like Jeremiah Owyang, Robert Scoble, MG Siegler – are driven off of the number of followers and the number of posts. That creates a motivation to keep posting even when you don’t have anything to say or to generate discussions, whether they’re Twitter hash tags or Google+ discussions. When your influence rankings are high then vendor PR people start knocking on your door. Then you have insider access. Then people follow you because they think you have inside access. It’s a viscous little game.

I then shared the post and our conversation, generating further interesting discussion, but unfortunately I inadvertently shared it as limited and I can’t find a way to make it public again. :-(

This comes back to the issue of ‘lifecasting’ versus ‘mindcasting’ first raised by Jay Rosen. People usually follow celebrities or close friends to learn more about their lives. Yet Twitter in particular is now far more a place where people share links and ideas, and follow others for their insights and content curation.

Anyone prominent on Twitter for their content needs to consider whether they will alienate their followers by sharing too much personal trivia. Yet it is also true that many of us are interested in learning (a little) more about the personalities and lives of people we engage with.

So what is the solution?

You can’t know who wants to follow what part of your public persona. Circles in their current form aren’t useful for that. From the other side you don’t know the names of the circles people have put you in. So we need some new mechanisms.

In the discussion Dennis Howlett suggested using tags. That could work, but if done manually it’s hard work and always an individual solution. This could be built in to the platform to allow tags (or even auto-tagging) on posts. A key issue would be whether there is a fixed taxonomy of topics, which would be restrictive, or whether people can create their own array of tags for their posts.

Graham Dawson suggested using an algorithmic approach, providing a filterable stream that individual could refine by liking or not liking individual posts.

Given the degree of maturity of social networking today, this is one of the critical issues in seeing its value continue to increase. There is no question that Google+ is the best platform to address the issue of allowing people to follow parts of ourselves. Let’s hope this is squarely on their agenda.