Niches, Starfish, and Circles: The Potential of Google+

By: Guest | August 15, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by John Fitzgerald.

The concept of Google+ Circles is not a revolutionary one.

Many of us already use digital tools to segment our contacts and the information we share with them, including multiple email addresses, Twitter accounts, and Web sites.

We share different content on LinkedIn than we do on Facebook or on Twitter.

Google+ makes segmentation easier, but do we need it?

To examine this question, I went back to three books that discuss organization, communication and the effects of digital technology on the finding and sharing of content. Technology is making it possible – and in many cases, necessary – to segment our activities into niches.

The Long Tail, Niche Interests, and Circles

“Mass culture may fade, but common culture will not. We will still share our culture with others, but not with everyone.” – Chris Anderson, The Long Tail

One of Chris Anderson’s main points in “The Long Tail” is that digital tools make it easier to find, create, and share content. Everything from obscure music to old TV shows and books can now be found with relative ease, creating new markets for our niche interests.

By definition, our niche interests aren’t shared by most of our friends, family, and co-workers. So how can we share all of this content with the people who are interested in it?

The key is to find a way to easily separate our contacts into different groups. Google+ seems to be a great tool for this.

Starfish and Circles

“Circles are important to every decentralized organization we’ve explored.” – Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom The Starfish and the Spider

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom focus on the advantages of decentralized organizations in “The Starfish and the Spider.” The authors refer to circles as, “…the first of five important foundations of a decentralized organization.”

Our contacts are our own decentralized organizations – everyday, we recognize the value of pieces of content and then determine who might be interested in them. Whether we realize it or not, we are actually creating groups  of contacts and distributing information to the correct groups, without much thought given to the benefits of a digital tool to structure these groups.

Google+ is a digital tool that allows you to organize around this concept, making it easier to share the right content with the right people.

Making Ideas Happen with Circles

“Circles like this play a critical role in making ideas happen across creative industries.” Scott Belsky “Making Ideas Happen”

Making Ideas Happen” is a must-read for anyone looking to jump start their productive output. Belsky recommends using circles to communicate with different groups of people across organizations.

Belsky warns that circles should be limited to roughly 15 people – groups much larger may experience a breakdown in communication and organization. This seems to suggest that a Google+ Circle should be broken into smaller sub-groups of 15 members – for instance, a Circle for “Family” could be divided into circles for immediate family, nieces/nephews, distant cousins, etc.

It should be noted that Belsky seems to be unimpressed with the early version of Google+. In a recent Tweet, he said, “I find it’s just a stream of a few vocal folks. Not engaging nor balanced.” I suspect this issue will sort itself out when more people begin actively using G+ and/or when Belsky breaks his Circles into smaller Circles.

Circles: A New Twist On An Old Concept

Of course, you can easily segment your contacts on Facebook and Twitter using lists, but lists are almost an afterthought for these networks. In fact, I’ve found it’s actually easier to create a separate Twitter account for each project or group of contacts, than it is to maintain and check on my lists.

In contrast, segmentation is built into the DNA of Google+. To get the most value out of Google+, it is helpful to understand the concept behind chopping up your contact list into smaller segments, or circles.

Circles aren’t a feature as much as they are the building block of the network itself. Have you determined your segmentation yet? How are you creating your circles?

John Fitzgerald is a documentary filmmaker. He produced The Emerald Diamond (2006) and Playing for Peanuts (2009). He currently serves as a social media consultant to several pro baseball teams and non-profits.

  • WillReichard

    Interesting…I have found the “targeting” aspect of G+ hard to manage because of this dilemma: When I circle someone, I both choose to _ask for_ content from them and potentially _offer_ them whatever information I’ll send to that circle. However, the person being circled doesn’t know what content I’ll share in that channel. Nor do I know what I’ll see from the other person. So the segmentation seems great for viewing, and for sharing, _if_ our views of what we’re looking for from each other happen to overlap. In practice, so far it’s been relatively clean. My broad friends/family/tech/social media/etc. groups are by and large good reading filters. But I really don’t know if my sharing is working well. Subjot is trying to organize conversations by topics, but I don’t know that that’s the answer either. If Google would let us make shared circles, then I think it would be truly effective for targeting.

  • @WillReichard Interesting, although I think G+ is a two-way street. Just because you put someone in a circle doesn’t mean they are obliged to provide you with content. They would have to put you in a circle as well. In that sense, I would argue G+ works for viewing AND sharing – you share with who you choose and others do the same, regardless of whether you are in each other’s circles.

  • Great article John! I’m having a hard time naming all of my circles but I like your idea of only having 15 people per circle. Otherwise the message is too broad. Google Plus motivated me to go back to my Facebook account and make sure people were in the appropriate lists as well. It’s much harder to do so on FB though!

  • Great article John! I’m having a hard time naming all of my circles but I like your idea of only having 15 people per circle. Otherwise the message is too broad. Google Plus motivated me to go back to my Facebook account and make sure people were in the appropriate lists as well. It’s much harder to do so on FB though!

  • WillReichard

    @fitzternet Thanks for the reply. I find the whole circle idea very hard to follow, actually. You can post something publicly, which I won’t see unless I circle you. You could circle me first, but it would only appear in my Incoming stream. If we both circle the other, we’d both see the other’s material in our streams. (I sometimes feel like I’m having to do a GRE logic question before posting anything non-public there.) But nowhere in there do we ever know what we intend to share with each other through circling. It definitely does work for distribution based on what I think I want to share with you, but you never know what that is…it’s a fuzzy match at best. And it’s great for reading–no doubt about that–except that I put a tech figure in my tech circle and get all of his or her personal posts as well because they’re just sharing whatever to whomever they think that circle is. I dunno…I think G+ is the best social network so far, but it could be so much better if we could match up our interests–really target each other–this way.

  • @Samantha Collier Thanks! Right now, there isn’t much you can do in G+ except for Circles, because that’s really what G+ is – a segmenting tool… for now. That same feature gets less useful in Twitter and completely lost on FB because lists/segmenting is not an essential feature to the service.

  • @WillReichard Hmm… Good points… Try thinking of it like a multiplex. Each individual theater is playing a movie that caters to a different interest – comedy, horror, action/adventure, children’s movie and foreign film. Each moviegoer picks which movie(s) to go see, just like they would decide who to follow with circles.

    The movie studio doesn’t have to follow each individual moviegoer, but maybe there are a few that interest them, so they get put into a circle. But the concept of reciprocal friends/follows appears to be useless with G+ so I don’t think we’ll see a mad rush for people to add hundreds of friends for vanity purposes. That would be a good thing if it holds true.

  • WillReichard

    @fitzternet Yes…but with the movies, don’t we have lots of ads and reviews ahead of time to know what this particular one is about? With G+, it’s more like, “I’ve made dozens of movies in the past in every conceivably genre and may make some new ones in genres you’ve probably hated in the past. If you agree to enter the theater, I may show you all, some or none of those movies inside.” You could say, “Yes, but with filters, I’m essentially choosing which theaters to enter.” But you have no way to know what’s inside…so how do you categorize? Yes, there are some broad overlaps, but it’s definitely not an efficient way to connect with a finer control. Yes, you could look at my public posts, but the real value of our connection might be in tech posts that I don’t share to everyone (because they would bore them silly). Or whatever.

    I agree about the “collecting” behavior…that is definitely a nice feature of G+. Although a fair number of people have already hit the 5,000-person limit…

  • @fitzternet This is awesome John! Probably the most sensible thing I’ve read on G+ thus far. I’ve been struggling to get my head round it but I love the idea of 15 people in a circle and separate circles for projects.

    The only thing I find hard now is keeping track of it all. It would be nice if Hootsuite integrated Google+ so I could have everything in one place. It’s a time drain checking multiple sites.

  • @jonbuscall Hey thanks!

    Whoa… Hootsuite for G+… game changer! Great idea!

  • John, I really enjoyed this. I’m one of those people who really never did much with Facebook because of the non-segmentation approach. I know FB has friend lists, but they are clunky and unintuitive.(There is even an app now to make them look like G+ circles). Anyway, I love the G+ circles, but am still trying to figure out the best methodology with them.

    Great analysis. Thanks!

  • @adamtoporek I agree with Adam, (and you, John!) Facebook my friends on Facebook come from a variety of circles, making it hard to be active and please everyone. I love the G+ circles, but of course, it’s a marketing/pr echo chamber right now…. 🙂 TIme will tell if mainstream adoption occurs, or if FB integrates the concept. Loved the references to the books. In fact, I think I need to read Making Ideas Happen!

    Thanks for the guest post!!

  • @fitzternet@jonbuscall Hmmm, I bet they are eyeballing it, don’t you think?

  • @Lisa Gerber Thanks Lisa! I’ve been thinking about this some more and it seems G+ Circles is (for now) best thought of as a tool for segmentation and distribution. Sort of like an app for mass emails.

    Of course, I’m overlooking Hangouts, Sparks, and all the rest of it. There’s a ton of stuff Google can do with G+, but I think it all hinges on Circles working for people.

  • ginidietrich

    I’m late coming here because I was on Google+ talking about niches and starfish and unicorns and your blog post. Turns out, there are no unicorns.

  • ginidietrich

    I’m late coming here because I was on Google+ talking about niches and starfish and unicorns and your blog post. Turns out, there are no unicorns.

  • Hey,

    I really haven’t got hung on the Google + craze as yet. Mainly because so many of my friends are still on Facebook and I find them there. In the beginning I did like the concept of circles, neat and crisp but how much do we segment…some friends become acquaintances, some don’t; some acquaintances are likeable, some are not… maybe I should have a circle that says “Haven’t figured out these people yet” But then, what do I share with them..hmmm! You got us all thinking!