One Circle to Rule Them All: Winning the Battle for Social Network Domination


Twitter , Facebook, email, IM… Will the new Google + Circles become “the One Circle to rule them all”, the social network everyone will want to join? While the jury is out, Google + is helping us frame the challenge to becoming The One Network: connection and communication.

Connection

Running a design consultancy like DesignCaffeine, means publishing large amounts of information on social networks. Image then how pleased I was to hear about the new Google +, a network organized around Circles (or rings) that determine how the information is shared and distributed. The new Circles sharing framework – one Circle was for your friends, one for family, one for promoting my new book, plus a Circle for each project – made sense. It also has certain familiar ring to it:

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

Have we truly been given the Social Networking “Rings of Power” or have we been, as the kings of old Middle Earth “deceived”? After using Google + for only a few days, several things became apparent.

There is little doubt that Rings (or Circles as Google calls them) are an improvement over the chaos and cacophony that has become Facebook. However, organizing my communication using Circles “from outside – in” just felt somehow wrong, like forcing incorrect information architecture on an art collection or trying (and failing) to predict behavior of future generations using mathematical sociology as in Asimov’s “Foundation”. In The Lord of the Rings epic, the Rings of Power are used to trick various races into separating along imagined lines, making them weaker. If there is one underlying current that runs through the entire Lord of the Rings epic is that we are all in this together, against great evil that is ignorance, close-mindedness, aggression and brutality.

Take Gimli, for example. How would we use Google + Circles to help us connect with and communicate with him? To begin with, we’ll probably set up a “Fellowship of the Ring” Circle and place Gimli there, based on a shared goal. We might stop there, but in great movies and real lives, things are rarely remain simple. Gimli also belongs in the “Non-Humans” Circle, and a Dwarves Circle (of which, at least in the movie version, he is the only member, but it should be included since it is such a central part of Gimli’s identity). Sliced in a different way, Gimli is part of the General Good Guys circle. He is also part of the Funny Circle, Does not Like Horses Circle, Questionable Table Manners Circle and the Ax Circle. He is also part of the “Kick Sauron’s Derriere” project, “Defend Minas Tirith” project, and many other projects that occur in the book. You can see how it would be take several screens worth of Circles just to manage our communication with Gimli.

Before you start your own Mount Doom flame war, I know that yes, you can add people to more than one circle and move them around. But this is hardly the focus of the Circles functionality. It’s more like an after-thought, further under-scored by the fact that you can’t copy or move multiple people together.

A Better Connection

Circles or Rings are certainly a much better model than the complex morass of sharing segmentation features hurriedly bolted-on by Facebook. But even Circles seems to be too limiting and intransigent. Circles once again feel like the early Microsoft Outlook contact categories. I think everyone was a bit stumped when it came to creating their Circles – that is why Google seeded the Circle space with the simplistic collections such as “Family”, “Friends” and “Following” to help everyone get a head start.

Yet people are notoriously difficult to categorize. Instead, a much better model is tagging and folksonomies, as described in Gene Smith’s brilliant book “Tagging: People-powered Metadata for the Social Web” (New Riders Press, 2008). Tagging is dynamic, flexible, limitless – it is a way to both describe and organize, and best of all it’s human-centric, and does not require people to impose any pre-determined IA (Information Architecture) structure onto their contacts.

Creating and maintaining the IA for your life is not easy. Because tags are more flexible and person-centric, they help us manage complexity and noise, while Circles and Categories confuse and befuddle. Let’s say for example that you have an ACME, Inc, circle that manages the communication with your co-workers. This circle works great as long as you remain gainfully employed making Roadrunner traps. Unfortunately, changing jobs throws this fine idea into havoc. Do you retain the ACME, Inc. Circle even though it is no longer relevant or lose associative data by “cleaning up” your social network and getting rid of the ACME, Inc. Circle? Or do you move everyone into a different circle, “Ex-Job Contacts”? Is that even a relevant category into which to sort people, now that your industry and job occupation has changed to designing better cages for Tweety Bird? Or is it better to create a job function Circles, like Engineering, IT, Business, Administration? And if you do, how will you share with your ex-coworkers any juicy Roadrunner trap news and ideas?

During the time of violent life changes, categories and circles can be confusing because it is hard to predict how you will want to communicate tomorrow, much less a week or a month from now. Yet it is during these times that we rely on our social networks for support. It is during those times that we look for unexpected intersections between the different the social rings looking to connect with the people that will help us find a job, a place to live or a good doctor. In contrast to Circles and categories, tags allow you to bypass any worry about how to categorize contacts. You can easily add as many tags as you want to every person in your life, and change them as needed. Best of all, you can effortlessly create lists of contacts that combine two or more tags. You can even exclude people based on tag, as needed. Instead of creating a single ACME, Inc. Circle you can assign everyone at the company an #acme tag, which does the same thing. But why stop there? You can also assign people individual job function and interest tags, while also adding #friend tag to people who you want to receive the link to the latest Ke$ha YouTube video while excluding #references (who you will not be introducing to the latest teen rock sensation).

Here’s another quick example – let’s say you are going to NYC for a conference and would love to get together for a quick pint at a local watering hole. But who to invite? People in your Clients Circle would be nice, both past and perspective. But would you tell everyone in your “Client” ring you will be in the Big Apple? No way — unless your clients live in NYC, they think rightly think that you are spamming them. How about your “Aspirational contacts” list? Ditto. How about your friends? Well, none of them live in NYC. Would you create a special “NYC Trip August 5 2011″ Circle and add people to it? Way too much trouble. So you will instead post a lame general message “I’m off to NY, let me know if you want to connect” and we are right back where we started – with the ocean of noise on Twitter and SPAM-Ville on Facebook. When it comes to spontaneously finding and deepening un-expected connections, Rings, Circles and Categories definitely leave a lot to be desired.

Fortunately, tags provide a much better connection mechanism. All of your connections can be self-tagged with the city and state where they currently abide. Alternatively, you can manually tag interesting people with where they live or work: #NYC, #SF, #LA, including multiple tags for really interesting creative people like Josh Clark (@globalmoxie) who travels often and lives in multiple countries. Now all it takes is a couple of keystrokes of a quick tag-based search (just like Twitter!) and voila – your very own instant New York Drink Fellowship Ring/Circle! Now you can tell your Tagppeeps the exact dates, times and places you will be and set up a great get-together. Hug a friend. Score a gig. Connect your friends and clients with one another. All the while keeping noise to a minimum and maximizing your connection spontaneity. And isn’t this the whole point of this exercise, surely?

Communication

Being able to get the right information to the right people instantly, in context, and add value to the work processes as-they-happen is the near-future promise of our social networks. While this is the ideal, we are certainly not there yet. Here is my very incomplete and subjective list of features a new social network should consider having in order to win the bid for becoming the One Circle To Rule Them All.

1) Superior Mobile App

When it comes to social networking, mobile strategy is your strategy. There is no other. Mobile technology will determine whether your network lives or dies. The rocketing increase of mobile use of Twitter and Facebook, coupled with increased market penetration of smart phones and widening availability of cheap Android models makes Mobile the most important market to capture. There is little doubt that Google has a leg up on the competition, as they own the Android platform and can fully integrate Google + into the phones operating system. However, the jury is still out on the Google’s current mobile offering, especially the iPhone application. However, releasing apps for all of the major platforms is certainly a step in the right direction.

2) Integrated Feeds

The main reason we do not yet derive full value from mobile is that communication is tightly subdivided into technological silos: Email, IM, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and information is not semantically labeled and sorted into buckets people can actually use. Instead, people are forced to continuously check various communication channels for fear of loosing an important communication and to get the constant dopamine hit of being able to stay in touch and up-to-date. Keeping up with all of our methods of communication takes a lot of time and almost super-human effort. Any new social network worth considering in a bid for the “One Circle to Rule them All” title should make a serious effort to separate the message from the technology medium.

One approach would be to integrate and prioritize various information feeds within a single unified inbox. Rather than switching apps to stay in touch on all the networks, we will be able to get all of the feeds in one place. Instead of tracking down the people we need to get in touch with, we will be able to select everyone we need and send a single communication with the right people in one shot, from one central location. Even better, people we want to reach will be able to receive our communication in the way they prefer. Anyone who ever tried to use the barely usable LinkedIn InMail can attest to the fact that creating a robust inbox is not easy. Here again, Google + has significant advantage over other social networks, because Google already owns Gmail – a very successful, highly usable product that forms the basis and the technology to create a fully integrated inbox. Google recently added a communication bar to Gmail, showing that they certainly interested in making Gmail more integrated with their other services.

3) Integrated Alerts

Every day new and different ways to communicate are popping up all over the mobile landscape. Facebook alone allows for more than 10 different ways to send and receive messages (poke, post on the wall, comment on photo, etc.). And every new social networking service takes it upon themselves to popup alerts, one after another, on our phone. And these alerts are multiplying: by default, multiple alerts are propagated through the networks, so we get an email alert about a DM Tweet or when receiving a Facebook friend request in addition to multiple alerts on our mobile phone. As noted by Douglas Ruskoff in his brilliant book, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (OR Books, 2010) heavy mobile phone users are developing a “Phantom Vibration” syndrome where we feel our phone vibrating on our hip even though the device itself is in the next room. Alerts are now conditioning our very nervous systems to salivate at every incoming message like Pavlov’s dogs. The “Revenge of the Son of Planet of Alerts” has reached its climax.

Proliferation and popularity of alert aggregating apps like Boxcar points to the fact that we are desperately searching for a way out of the alert jungle. Thus a new social network must avoid at all costs being “yet another place we need to check”. Instead, it should be able to recognize that our experience need not be about the technology of connecting, but rather about the goal of connecting, and the system should take upon itself the task of prioritizing various communication channels to alert only the most important and urgent messages.

To take a stab at prioritize alerts, we can try an approach proposed by David Allen in Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin, 2002) who advised people to prioritize incoming information into 5 buckets:

 

    1. Important and Urgent (email from a client, client DM on Twitter, family phone call)

 

    1. Important (email from your immediate team, voicemail)

 

    1. Urgent (email from Groupon, @ message on Twitter, miscellaneous phone call)

 

    1. Not Urgent and Not Important (FYI emails, Facebook friend request)

 

    1. To Read (various friend feeds)

 

In other words, the new social network must help us deal with the digital noise by brutally enforcing ruthless alert hierarchy based on topic, content, messenger and recipients list. We are now at the point where we absolutely must leverage both our collective social intelligence and machine learning to deal with the overload of data our social networks produce.

Google certainly recognizes this and they have already made strides to do that using their “important” tag in Gmail, so far with mixed results. Facebook earlier attempted to do the same prioritization with the “more/less from this person” feature. However, relying on manual features to assign importance is missing the entire point. This is exactly the kind of job that we can and should rely on computers to automate. To assign urgency and importance to the message, the system can track how long it typically takes this particular recipient to open a message from this particular contact, on this particular topic. This data can be further re-enforced by how quickly recipients (and people similar to the recipient) respond to the person, and how often keywords and tags in the message occur in the recipient’s recent communications. This is certainly not trivial, but far from impossible. The manual “more/less important” button is similar in many ways to the early “Spam/Not Spam” buttons – an “Ejection Lever” something we should never need unless things are going wrong with the software.

4) Integrated Publishing Solution

Right now we rely on technology channel to some extent to specify the content and immediacy of the message. For example, a message sent to us in our LinkedIn InMail Inbox is likely to be a job of some sort, probably one fairly targeted to our skills. Twitter is likely to contain news and immediate updates deemed as important topics by people we wish we went to school with, such as titillating information about the kind of sandwich had for lunch. Finally Facebook (and we particularly mustn’t forget Facebook, Best Beloved) contains urgent pleas for Farmville livestock by people you actually went to school with, intermingled with pictures of happy children smothered in chocolate sauce who were allegedly fathered by those same people while they weren’t busy taking care of their virtual domestic animals or expanding their Mafia empires.

However, the lines between work and play commerce and friendship are becoming increasingly blurred. We connect with our friends on LinkedIn which also shows our Twitter feed, while creating professional company and product presence pages on Facebook. Depending on the particular relationship with the recipient, it is not unusual in an attempt to track down a busy person on an urgent, important matter by send them an email, followed up immediately by a DM on Twitter, and a message on Facebook asking them to read their urgent email. All of these messages multiply the cacophony that is drowning us in our social networking offal.

The network that wants to become the “One Circle to Rule Them All”, must transcend the lines currently drawn through underlying social network technologies, delivery methods and message lengths by creating the integrated publishing solution with a single system of tags and unified dynamic importance and urgency scale. I think Google + Circles is an early attempt to do just that. However, in terms of communication power it does not yet go far enough.

Importance and urgency of the message can be assigned by the sender, and verified continuously by his or her social network so the network can select the appropriate method of contacting the recipient based on his or her communication preferences and activity on the specific network channel. In addition, for someone like Google it would be entirely feasible to be able to detect our location, which activity we are engaged in, and on which device, and moderate the message urgency accordingly.

The “One Circle” social network must create an integrated publishing solution that moves beyond a single dimension or a single messaging technology and takes into consideration recipients, topic, keywords, length of content, importance and urgency.

A Parting Word of Caution

It is not unusual for digital natives to have 500+ world-wide connections situated in all imaginable time zones. A typical person maintains 20+ active projects and receives and sends upward of 100 messages a day. The social network that wants to avoid becoming yet another source of noise and instead become “the One Circle to Rule Them All” must provide a near-perfect solution blending connection and communication. But being a life-blood of the digital age is not going to be easy. Even after all of the connection and communication features work, reliability, transparency, customer service and above all, preserving user identity and control will be the key.

Google + recently got a taste of the magnitude of the problem when they deleted a “striking number” of the accounts, explaining only “After reviewing your profile, we determined the name you provided violates our Community Standards.” (Google Plus Deleting Accounts En Masse: No Clear Answers. ZDNet, by Violet Blue, July 23, 2011)

Community backlash has been enormous, and rightly so. The more we rely on one particular network to handle our digital connection needs, the more risky and committed that relationship becomes for consumers. Much like our near-complete reliance on electricity deprives us all at once of illumination, internet connectivity, ability to store and cook our food or even call for help should we be somehow separated from our electric grid, our entire digital lives and identities revolve around our social networks. Simply deleting someone’s data because they have chosen the unfortunate username, while leaving people no recourse to restore their identity can be absolutely devastating.

To put it mildly, social networking is not a simple problem. Keep in mind that this is Google’s third entry into the social arena (have you forgotten Wave and Buzz, Best Beloved?). Having had my share of spectacular social networking design blunders, I take my hat off for the Google+ team that is working really hard to make this new network a benefit for everyone. Will Google + become the “One Circle to Rule Them All”? It’s certainly putting up one hell of an epic battle.

Greg Nudelman

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