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Thursday, September 1, 2011

An important advantage Flickr has over Google Plus

A couple of days ago a popular G+ mate of mine, Lotus Carroll, put out a call to anyone interested in joining her new Parenting Circle. She has a large and adoring following thanks to her unique take on photographing herself and the flowers and bugs in her garden and, as I type, more than 200 of her fans have eagerly asked to be added to her new Circle.

For Lotus this is more than just an indication of her sudden and deserved popularity, it’s also a great opportunity to leverage off her 10,000 followers and perhaps grow a whole new following around her thoughtful and entertaining writing.

But this new development for Lotus is also an example of the significant limitations inherent within Google’s Circles.

Let me explain.

Two aspects of the new G+ platform were particularly compelling for me when I first heard about the beta trial. First, it’s a Google product and I’m an advocate for so much of what they develop I was very eager to get inside and see how they solved the social networking challenges - just ask my Flickr contacts who witnessed me pathetically pining for an invitation when they first appeared.

Second, I was very happy to learn about Google’s solution to the problems caused by the synchronous nature of relationships on Facebook. The Circles concept neatly solves the glaring challenge Facebook users have regarding sharing all their posts with all their contacts. [Insert well worn reference to school teacher whose students see pictures from her wild drunken birthday party] Giving users the ability to pick and choose who sees what content, Google Plus Circles neatly provides the solution Facebook wishes they’d baked in from the start and it was a very attractive feature that had me rushing over from Facebook.

Despite the wonderful granularity Circles bring to us as users, they create a problem all their own that limits their usefulness at promoting conversations and congregations. Take Lotus and her Circle of Parenting stuff. Lotus will publish her insights and anecdotes about raising the son she calls her Tiny King of Chaos and her Circle of eager followers will no doubt be moved and entertained by her stories. They will want to join in and write comments on her posts, sharing their thoughts on her experiences while also relating some of their own. Each post will quickly fill with a hundred comments and a hundred more +1s and we will all look forward to the next installment.

It’s a very successful model for Lotus but it quickly reaches it’s capacity as a means for her followers to congregate around the topic. Ivan Makarov has asked to be included in Lotus’ new Circle - he and his wife have just welcomed their third child to the world and Ivan has been posting some gorgeous photos of their week-old son. Ivan will get to know a new group of people as an active member of Lotus’ Circle but if he wants to begin sharing his experiences with little Alex among his new friends he has two inadequate choices. Either he squeezes as much as he can into a comment on Lotus’ posts and risks becoming a thread hijacker; or he duplicates Lotus’ efforts by adding all the same people to a Circle of his own. They would, of course, all need to add him to one of their Circles in order to see what he posts.

The one-to-many nature of G+ Circles makes them wholly inadequate as a means to foster discussion and sharing between a defined group of people around a specific topic or interest.

Flickr is one place where people congregate around a topic and Flickr’s method of fostering discussion is to provide a means for users to create their own Groups for people to join. My first experience with Flickr was joining one of their very popular Delete Me critique groups where members post a photograph into the Group’s pool and other members vote on the worthiness or otherwise of the submission. It’s a place of very fast learning requiring very thick skin, but that’s a topic for another time.

Communication with other members of the Group is by a simple threaded discussion platform. A person will write a new post about their disdain for HDR photography, for example, and others will chime in with their own thoughts and opinions. Very quickly the thread takes on a life of its own and the original poster goes from conversation starter to just another voice in the crowd - exactly like we experience out here in 3D.

Google’s framework won’t lend itself to what Flickr calls Groups, but what it can accommodate is the creation of ‘public’ Circles. Imagine a Circle that has no owner so instead of Lotus Carroll creating her Circle of contacts who want to receive her (and only her) content, she creates a Circle that contains no people but users can choose to include posts to that Circle in their stream, like a subscription. Lotus can then share with that Circle a tale about how much destruction her son caused this morning just as she would with any other Circle and those “subscribers” or “members” will receive her jaunty tale in their streams and laugh along with her.

The very important difference though is Ivan Makrov can similarly post his own material to that very same Circle. This makes Circles able to behave like Groups because now Ivan, Lotus and anyone else can start a new post and everyone who has “joined” the Circle can contribute just as they can over at Flickr.

This is a feature I hear Google are working on and when it arrives it will take a little while for some users to get their heads around it. For one thing, a public Circle has characteristics quite the opposite of Circles as we currently know them. They will have a name or title known to everyone, all the people in the Circle will be visible and known, and nobody will have any ownership. So when Lotus creates her Parenting Circle everyone will know what it’s called, all the people inside will see who else is there, and the Circle will exist independent of Lotus - she could close her account and the Circle would live on.

This is a development Google needs to release sooner rather than later because it is a key element in fostering community and involvement and if G+ is to stay relevant it must cultivate a vibrant ecosystem of active and engaged users.

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