Google+ appears to have struck a chord with Circles. Circles provide a convenient way to filter incoming content posts by groups of people. They take some work to set up, but in launching with Circles, users are fast getting used to the extra effort.
But I’m wondering if there might be another way to use circles. Perhaps a different type of circle, perhaps a different name altogether.
Because so many new users are still signing up on Google+, Circles provide a social function. Adding people to a Circle is more-or-less equivalent to following and following back. So circling captures the need for mutual recognition in establishing social presence. And accommodates the etiquette of reciprocity. (Not that everyone does it this way.)
Circles, in other words, facilitate the process of getting connected on a new social network. Strictly speaking, this is orthogonal to the function of Circles — which is to act as a feed filter on incoming content.
I’m not surprised that while Circles are intended to reduce noise in a feed-based social network, they may primarily serve a social function. After all, we put people in Circles. And any social feature that involves users in grouping people is inevitably going to play into social distinctions — separating and grouping people by some kind of identity.
As a feed-based network, Google+ creates topical and social conversations. Currently, because it’s new, a lot of this interaction occurs around the most visible and active members. These members create attention-getting real estate — thus providing others with a place to make their presence known. (And generating more connections, eg. among commenters.)
Eventually, this activity will taper off. At which point, I wonder if it would be in Google’s interest to provide us with topical Circles. These could be opt-in Circles of interest. A topic, or shared interest, for conversation. Not as a standing Circle of people, but as a standing conversation. Perhaps we call them bubbles — and they persist in the stream as ongoing conversations among those who have elected to participate.
These conversational bubbles would allow users to make new connections based not just on social circles and peer circles (as currently) but on shared interests. I might have a set of bubbles on my profile, for example, within which are people actively interested in the same topic. This would enrich profiles, provide a persistent record of a user’s topical interests, and serve as navigation directly to conversation. Benefits not enabled by Facebook likes or status updates.
Google+ could make more of feed-based discussion if it were to allow users a way to initiate and sustain conversations. Something that would surely supply Google with rich social data on users and topics alike. Stream bubbles. I want them.