A tweeter’s guide to taming Google+

Google’s new toy, Google+, is in beta test, invitation only, but is predictably getting a lot of attention. I received an invitation on Friday 8th July, 2011, joined up and immediately went about the task of making contact with people I follow on blogs or on Twitter.

If you’re familiar with Facebook (which I used until two years ago) or Twitter, the basic ideas are all there. Rather than a Friend model, Google+ uses a Twitter-like Follow model. Unlike Twitter, you have fairly precise control over the visibility of something you share, from public posts right down to private communication to one or more people. One of the tools for this is known as “Circles”. A circle is a grouping of people you follow. You can put people in more than one circle, and you follow someone by moving their name into one or more circles and unfollow by removing them from all circles.

One thing I found at first was that, because Google+ came with canned circles called “Family”, “Friends”, “Acquaintances” and so on, I added lots of family members, friends and whatnot even though I have perfectly valid alternative ways of communicating with them. I love my friends and family but by and large I have no interest in the kind of interaction that takes place on Facebook and they undoubtedly have no wish to duplicate their Facebook accounts (if they have them) on yet another service. One Facebook ought to be enough for anybody.

There are people whose doings and opinions I do find very interesting, though. I follow them on Twitter, or on their various blogs using Google Reader. These are the people who are likely to produce and share content that is interesting to me. If Google+ is any use at all, it will be for providing a slightly more natural environment for discussion than Twitter, Facebook or blog threads. So here’s a posting that started out as a comment to a post by Ed Yong on Google+ .

I use Twitter in a very one-dimensional way. If you’re on my follow list, I’m interested in what you say. You can do this with Circles by just adding all interesting people to your “Following” circle.

In fact now I look at it I notice that I had added people to my “Family” and “Friends” circles who I’m pretty sure will either never join Google+ or, even if they do, will never say anything I will want to follow here. They can say and do all the interesting things in real life or using telephones and email and stuff.

So I just cleared out those two. This will leave me with a very sparsely populated “Acquaintances” circle and a comparatively large and Twitter-like “Following” circle. The next step is to merge these into “Following”–the fact that I’ve actually met somebody and pressed the flesh is fairly irrelevant to my experience on Google+. Okay that’s now done. So I delete the “Friends”, “Family” and “Acquaintances” circles, never used and not needed.

This is looking much more Twitter-like. But still there are some things that I like to talk about that some users would find boring or annoying. So far I have 9 circles that seem to follow the ontology (thank you, +William Gunn ) of my interests. Some people I’m following are in as many as five of those circles, while others are in just 1. Where I’ve posted here, I’ve tended to limit distribution so you won’t have seen my post unless you’re in the relevant circle. I think that’s appropriate for the kind of post I’ve made here so far.

But wait, I’ve still got a “Following” circle. The problem with that circle is that it’s intended to be a superset of the others, but that superset is artificially maintained (I manually add people there). I’m quite likely to make mistakes and forget to add people to it, and in any case Google+ provides me with the ability to share a post with all those I follow (“your circles”), and even with a much broader range (“extended circles”), which is a more elegant way of sharing with all followers. So I now trim the “Following” circle, removing everybody who is already a member of another circle. I now give that circle a more appropriate name: “+Miscellaneous” (actually I chose to copy all members to a new circle and delete the original, because otherwise it retained the “People you don’t know personally, but…” tooltip).

I’m new to Google+, but if I had been around for a bit the process above might have been a bit more painful, involving sharing previously posted material to newly created circles prior to deleting the old ones, and so on

So what have I done? Well I’ve not gone for the “flat” Twitter-like system because I do value being able to keep my interests reasonably separate. I’ve also created, as somebody suggested, a “+Inbox” group, whose membership will vary over time, but which basically corresponds to +Ed Yong ‘s “Really interesting” circle. That’s the one I’ll check most regularly for new stuff unless I’m looking for material on a particular topic.

Out went all the canned circles which are apparently based on a Facebook model I don’t have any use for. I’ve taken ownership of my Google+ experience. It’s got its own unique privacy features which I can use to avoid boring or annoying people (I sometimes wonder what my British Twitter followers make of my many excursions into US politics) but it’s got some familiar features so I’m no longer scratching my head and wondering what it’s actually for.