Everybody’s talking about Google+ these days so let me do the same and compare it to the only social network I actively use: Twitter.1 Many commenters on the web see Google+ becoming a real danger to Twitter or even wonder if Twitter is already mortally wounded. I don’t agree with this opinion at all; the reason is that I think Google+’s Circles are fundamentally flawed to compete with Twitter.
Before I elaborate on this, let me say that this post is based on my first impressions of Google+. It goes without saying that I am much more comfortable with how Twitter works than Google+. So far, I have mainly used my Google+ account for playing around a little bit. I haven’t started using it for real. This is more an analysis of Google+’s design than based on actual experience.
No question, Google+ and Twitter are totally different beasts. Nevertheless, the two services do have some overlap. For instance, in stark contrast to Facebook, Google+ has adopted Twitter’s asymmetric follower model, arguably one of Twitter’s greatest strengths.
Also, like Twitter and perhaps even more so, your activity on Google+ seems to happen inside the web, as opposed to Facebook’s walled garden that is cut off from the rest of the web.2
Google+ is certainly a lot less limited than Twitter. You can have proper conversations, share links, photos and videos easily without having to rely on third-party services, and there is no 140 character limit.
Google+ does not maintain the intuitive chronological order of my feed, promoting old items to the top when they receive new comments. This increases the lifetime of potentially interesting topics; it also means I have to deal with stuff again that I have already seen.
Twitter turns all these apparent downsides into a unique advantage: the uniformity and shortness of tweets allow me to follow many more people on Twitter than I probably could on other platforms. The information density of Twitter’s UI really brings this point home.
At first glance, Google+ could offset this with its finer-grained control over who sees what: on Twitter, everything you say is public.3 Everyone of your followers sees every single one of your tweets. Google+ encourages you to think about the audience of each item you share, making some public and others (semi-)private by only sharing them with one or more Circles of people. This should greatly improve the signal-to-noise ratio of your stream. Sounds great and Jeff Jarvis certainly thinks so, too: Google+ Circles are for noise reduction.
when I share with less than everyone it is not out of privacy or security needs. It’s out of relevance. I may have something to tell my TWiT colleagues or my fellow journowonks that would bore everyone else who follows me. So I restrict my audience not to keep a secret but to reduce noise for them, which I can’t do on Twitter or can’t easily do on Facebook. I am still sharing; it’s better sharing.
Alas, it only works as long as everything you share is (semi-)private. Let’s see why.
Circles are not compatible with the follower model
I should be the perfect audience for Google+. I am very concerned about creating too much noise for my Twitter followers. Hell, I even created a second Twitter account a few months ago to be able to separate my tweets by both topic and language.4 If I could do this better with Google+, that would be killer feature for me. Only it doesn’t work that way because Google+’s Circles only work in one direction, and it is the wrong direction to compete with Twitter.
Let’s try this with Google+: I would create separate Circles for each topic I regularly write about: Programming, Apple stuff (both usually in English, with lots of overlap); Berlin, politics, sports (usually in German and mainly of interest to the locals). I would then assign every item I post to one or more of these Circles. I wouldn’t post anything publicly because such a post would go to all my followers and thereby invalidate my aim of reducing noise for you. Everyone who follows me I woult place into the Circle(s) that I think fit them best.
This is my central issue with Google+’s current design: now I choose what portion of my (public) posts you should be able to read. Shouldn’t you have a say in this? Say you’re an iOS developer from abroad (so I put you into my Programming Circle) but you also happen to speak German and be interested in my other posts, who am I to say you shouldn’t see them? That is, if you follow me at all. Because until I place you in a Circle of mine, my stream looks empty to you, much like the timeline of a Twitter user who has protected their tweets. Why would you even want to follow me, not knowing what to expect?
And how is the experience for myself? By placing every one of my followers into one or more Circles, I am basically spamming my own timeline where now all of their updates appear, whether I want to see them or not. If I wanted to choose carefully whom to follow, I’d have to create another Circle and use that one just for filtering my own timeline. Doable, but not pretty.
The follower model assumes public posts
Following people on Google+ asymmetrically relies on the assumption that the people you follow post their stuff in public. On the other hand, Google+ encourages us to not do that: everybody should use Circles! As it is, the two models are incompatible with each other.
Circles are only half the solution
Google+ Circles are a nice feature. They considerably improve sharing with groups of people that are inherently closed and private (family, personal friends, coworkers). It gives Google+ an edge over Facebook. What it does not do is help us with public sharing, the way most of us use Twitter.
Using Circles, I can only filter by person, not by topic.5 What I would like to have in Google+ are “circles for topics” that my followers could subscribe to. I would then make posts public and assign one or more topics to each one (a “topic” could also be the item’s language; think of them as tags), and every one of my followers could subscribe either to my full feed or to a subset of topics. That would improve the signal-to-noise ratio! And for me the poster, it wouldn’t be harder than assigning a post to a Circle of people.
What Should Twitter Do?
If I were in charge of Twitter, I would focus on this: do everything to improve the signal-to-noise ratio for the users. It’s fine to keep the 140 character limit (that’s Twitter’s defining feature) but let users assign metadata to tweets. One such piece should be custom tags. Also, tag each tweet with the language it’s written in. That should be easy to automate, especially because it doesn’t have to be perfect (99% accuracy is fine). When I follow someone I should have the choice to only follow certain tags (and I don’t mean hashtags, they suck). Tags could also be used in search, thereby improving Twitter that feature.
The technology is already there in the form of annotations. And Twitter has the power, through its web interface and its set of native clients, to set a standard for annotations that other Twitter clients would quickly adopt. The SMS age is over.
I do have a Facebook account but I don’t use it much. I can count the number of times I actively posted something on Facebook on two hands. ↩︎
Arguably, this is more impression than fact since just like everything you say on Google+ can be private, everything you say on Facebook can be public. Nevertheless, the design and default settings of the products seem to encourage a certain use. ↩︎
You can make your Twitter account private so that only your followers can read your tweets. Not many people seem to do that, though, and those who do are certainly not a big part of the grand conversation that happens on Twitter. ↩︎
I now tweet as @olebegemann almost exclusively about programming (in English). I still use my original Twitter account @elo to tweet (mostly) in German about other stuff that I feel is not relevant to many of my international followers. And I found it works well for me: before I made the switch, I often hesitated when I wanted to say something in German because I didn’t want to piss off my non-German-speaking followers. Similarly, tweets about programming could potentially annoy my real-life friends. I feel the switch also served to attract more international followers that would otherwise be put off by a bilingual timeline. ↩︎
Sparks, another Google+ feature, does little to improve on that. ↩︎