Google Plus Circles Visualized

Just playing around today, trying to better visualize Google Plus’ circles-based sharing mechanisms.

I’m still on the fence about how sustainable Google+’s circles will be in the long run. I’m comfortable with thinking that Dunbar’s number applies for individual one-to-one relationships, but how effective are we at managing groups of relationships? Paul Adams’ (@Padday) slideshare is one of the most traveled examinations of complex real-life social networks, and has been referenced by a ton of other sites when Google+ launched (not surprising since Paul is an ex-Google Facebook-er, and ergo as close to an expert on this stuff as it comes).

View more documents from Paul Adams
But more to the point – are “circles” effective and sustainable? Dunbar’s number assumes that we can manage 150 independent relationships, but how many simultaneous groups can we hold together? My guess is that the number is something on the order of 4-6.

Why do I say that? Total speculation – but let’s think about most peoples’ lives. We typically associate with only a handful of active groups at any given time. I’d guess that for most folks, those groups would be:

  • Family… Virtually universal, everyone sustains some sort of relationship with their direct family (parents, cousins, aunts & uncles, neices & nephews).
  • Childhood / Coming-Of-Age Friends… Most people I know tend to hold a very close relationships with those few friends who were part of our formative years. Most people tend to keep close relationships with those people who were there during our most significant personal growth periods – whether it was highschool, college, first job, etc.
  • Coworkers… For many people in today’s economy, coworkers (either current, or the most recent workplace) represent a major social group. We spend 8+ hours a day with these people – often more time than most people get to spend with friends or family. To students, these are simply classmates. Different word, same thing.
  • Religion… The church is a major social center for many peoples’ lives. It provides at least some measure of commonality and trust to create relationships with neighbors, community members, and others who share a common values system.
  • A Social Activity… This is where my conjecture really gets out of hand. I have no evidence whatsoever to back this up, but I think it’s fair to say that most folks have one, maybe two, active social activities. Whether it’s a regular bowling league, a car club, a book club, or a social media mastermind, I think it would be rare to find too many people supporting more than a couple of social activities – at least not independent ones. It might be very true that a group of friends could perform many social activities, but those aren’t distinct interpersonal groups. Those are simply things we do with the people we already know.
This is where I think the backlash at Google+ Circles will emerge. We all love the idea of using them to organize all of our social relationships. But the reality is, outside of a handful of sustained groups, I think everyone else will simply fall out in to public. Here’s my first visual of the nature of circles, just as a demonstration:
In this example, just 9 people become relatively complex. I’m not even going to try to draw out the realities of 150 actual connections; not to mention the thousands of “followers” and transitional relationships that exist. It gets even further complicated when you recognize that Google+ circles are a hybrid between Twitter’s 2 one-way relationships, and Facebook’s required relationship parity (at least, between people, not fans or “like-r’s”).
It gets further compounded when you factor in the fact that Circles are an odd two-way relationship. I can put you in one, some, or all of my circles, and you can do the same to me. This means that we’re not just managing singular 1-to-1 relationships; we’re juggling complex group relationships. I want to vent about my job (which I really don’t, but stories are emerging regarding Facebook these days which I think are kinda sadly hilarious) – but I have to remember that I added Kim (from work) in to my Friends circle. And if I post something, she may re-share it (perhaps even publicly), and all the work I’ve done to curate a group and tightly control my discussions are now completely out of my control. Not only that, but I have to – in basically real-time – remember not to repeat my posts numerous times, even if I’m trying to tweak them for different groups. What if for my friends I want to make a joke about something, but for my coworkers I want to point out an insight from an article? In the case of Pam (my 2-circle Venn Diagram victim) she’ll get hit with both posts (in theory).
So while I applaud Google for making list-building more colorful and visually appealing with circles (let’s not forget that lists exist in Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and damn-near all the social networks I’ve seen), I’m not certain that we’re at the sweet-spot yet. I think once we realize that we have far fewer social circles than we give ourselves credit for, the process of managing circles will become a burden and/or a novelty. I can organize 150 people once. But I can’t tell you where they wound up 2 months from now. I’m thinking it’ll be more like playing a personal game of Guess Who [I put in to my circles] rather than a functional way of organizing relationships for the long-haul.
What do you think? Are Google+ Circles the great innovation – or are they simply a furtherance of a flawed notion that we are seeking out ways to categorize and organize our friends & relationships?

Kirsten WrightKirsten Wright – @kirstenwright
Okay, so the google+ circles really are starting to feel like hell to me.

ChristianChristian – @_Yuriam
“You know who else put his friends into circles? Dante.” #GooglePlus


2 thoughts on “Google Plus Circles Visualized”

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. You may not be too far off with your swag at “4 to 6” as the number of circles we can cognitively keep straight. (Ref. George Miller’s “Magical Seven Plus or Minus Two”,_Plus_or_Minus_Two

    (Caveat: The ref. also cites that this may have changed to be closer to about 3 or 4… In either case, you’re in the ballpark!)


    For my part, I think Google’s implementation of Circles, while not a revolutionary concept (since, as you pointed out, other social networks have similar constructs), is a good “evolutionary” step as it makes our interactions with different groups more prominent than, say, how FB does it today with Lists.

    However, I do wish that future evolutions will also include the ability to enhance circles with “intersections.”

    What I mean is, if you think about a Venn Diagram of overlapping circles, I think an innovation of sorts would be to allow me to interact with those who are at the intersection of some of my circles.

    So, rather than sending a post to *all* those in my “Dunbar Circle” (yes, I have such a named circle) AND to *all* those in my “Family” circle, I’d additionally love to have the option of sending a message to only those who comprise the smaller *subset* of peeps who are members of BOTH circles.

    1. Mel,

      Thanks for your insights… I think you’re right, the bulk of the opportunity really does lie at the “social intersections.” Those people who are both coworkers and personal friends, or the people from SMMOC (a social group) who emerge as valued amigos (personal friends).

      I really do like the categorization process – I think it’s a good start. But when the dust settles, are people going to be more or less satisfied with having all their relationships categorized in this way?

      I’m also extremely curious how Google will implement their Developer API. In Twitter and Facebook the relationship is very obvious (either one-way in twitter or matched-pair in FB). It’ll be interesting from a development standpoint to see what Google allows us dev’s to do with it.

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