Aug 4, 2011

Can we build communities with Google+ ?

Apologies, this might be a bit long.  I want to discuss an idea for Google+.

Progression of a Community
Imagine a mailing list about a somewhat broad topic, rock climbing.  This could apply to other social software systems (bbs, forum, social news), but I’ll use the mailing list for my example.

Initially the list grows out of a small group of contributors, likely folks who know each other IRL.  For these seed members, the list is just a convenient way to communicate out-of-bandf, organize trips, share local news, etc.  It’s a shorthand version of a cc list in email.

Over time, people invite their friends and the list starts to grow.  Geographical differences may begin separate the members.  If you could draw the social graph of the members, it would have sub-clumps.  At this stage, not everyone knows each other any longer.

As the list continues to grow, at some point the signal to noise starts to creep up on the list.  Reading a discussion on a local rock face in another time zone is minimally relevant.  More annoying is that user on the list trying to sell a new belay device to this targeted rock climbing audience.  At this stage, a community can collapse under it's own weight.

Scaling Patterns
Strong communities usually attempt to solve the above problems.  The attempts often fall into one or more of several patterns:

  • Individuals who are least similar to the “list personality” unsubscribe or are forced out.
  • A subgroup of “community administrators” creates strict rules defining acceptable content or acceptable users, removing content or approving it.  This administrator group can eventually have scaling problems too.  Wikipedia is a classic example of this approach.
  • Formation of fractured smaller lists to discuss more specific topics.  Reddit is a classic example with its numerous subreddits.
  • Using algorithms / voting to promote the more interesting discussions to help users filter content from noise.  Digg or the reddit home page are classic examples here.
  • I don't think that these patterns are full solutions.  Some seem to allow for a larger scale without fully solving the scaling problem.  Some succeed at promoting content that is most interesting to the lowest common denominator, but fail at promoting what’s most interesting to each individual.

Communities in Google+
I wonder if + Circles with some tweaks could work better as a community model.  I’m interested in your ideas, but here is my strawman:

  • Anyone can form a “public” rock climbing circle, but it doesn’t contain people, it contains comments, so let’s call it a rock climbing square rather than a circle. 
  • I can post to that square.  Those posts don’t show up in the streams of people who follow me.
  • All posts to the square are visible, but it’s liable to get noisy and unlikely anyone will really pay attention to the full stream for long.
  • I can follow other people strictly within the context of the rock climbing square.  I won’t see their public posts, just their rock climbing posts, but it’s public in a sense as they aren’t required to follow me in return.
  • I can reshare strictly within the context of the rock climbing square.  If Bob is following Alice, Alice is following Charlie, but Bob is not following Charlie - then Alice resharing a post from Charlie will display it to Bob, thus giving the square friend of a friend semantics with a filtering component.

In this sense, the community becomes a very weakly defined notion.  It’s not a fully connected graph like facebook, forums, or mailing lists.  It’s not disconnected subtopics either, like subreddits.  Members become filters for other members, and I can pick and choose my filters as their interests match my interests.

It has many similarities to twitter, but one important difference that I see (other than the character limit).  I can follow someone’s rock climbing posts without following their underwater basketweaving posts.

What do you think?  How could this be improved?

PS: I work for Google Search, but have no visibility into what the Google+ team’s plans are.  As a result I assume it’s safe to write about this kind of thing, but do remember - these are just my personal thoughts.


David Bennett said...

I can rarely follow the design concepts of G+ ideas. That is, I read the words but have no idea how it would work out in practise.

It sounds a bit like Google Groups integrated into G+

I will glad when Buzz is integrated into the main G+ stream.

Brett Goldberg said...

Greg - just found your blog through a link that Matt Cutts provided, providing you with all of the credit for Canonical Links. This blog here shows your creativity and intelligence. Thank you!