There's already been a lot written about the new Google Plus service, Google's new social networking site that's generations beyond anything that Orkut ever offered and already an impressive competitor to the reigning king of social networks, Facebook. What I haven't seen discussed yet is something that I think both differentiates Google Plus from Facebook and makes it far more interesting to me: Circles.
As people, we differentiate between our friends, whether we're youngsters lauding our BFF or whether we're married, have kids, social, cultural and political groups. You know what I'm talking about, it's the "strength" or "depth" of an interpersonal relationship. It's complicated, particularly when you realize that it's not symmetric, either, in that you can view someone as your bestest friend, even while they think of you as a close friend, but not their best pal.
The lack of modeling this nuance in relationships is what's made services like Twitter an increasing failure as a social network as it's become more popular, and what's spawned the rise of third party tools that let you "follow and forget" Twitter users. If you're not going to pay attention, though, why bother following them?
Even Facebook isn't immune to this, and it's impossible for the system to differentiate between someone I'm "friends" with two years after sharing a beer with them at a trade show and my best pal who I talk with daily about personal and professional matters. Sure, there are lists, but does anyone believe that addresses this problem in a meaningful way?
That's why I'm enthused about Google Plus and its model of social circles. If you've joined the still-beta social network, you'll see that the team has built a splendid model that doesn't offer the granularity of a "relationship closeness slider" (which, by the way, should decay over time in most cases) but still offers a smart way to characterize your relationships.
My biggest fear? That people who are joining Google Plus will ignore this chance to categorize your "friends" based on your actual relationship with them and just drag and dump everyone into their friends circle, thereby negating this powerful capability.
If you've been around a while, you'll remember that years ago, LinkedIn actually had a relationship closeness slider that let you rate your connection as you linked with someone. I presume not enough people utilized it because it's been gone quite a while.
And yet, that's what I really want with my social networks. I have 10,000 people following me on Twitter (@DaveTaylor), 1500+ friends on Facebook and hundreds of connections on all the other social networks. And I don't know who half these people are. I don't want to axe our tenuous relationship, but I really do want to be able to differentiate.
Which is exactly what you can do in Google Plus. Nice. Now, Google, let's see what you do with this additional level of information...