One Ring (Circle) to Rule them All? My Google Plus Experience

I heard about the new social sensation, Google Plus (G+) a few weeks ago, but I wasn’t among the privileged few to get one of the initial trial invites. Moreover, after reading some stories online (where everything is based on fact, right?), I was concerned that photo sharing on G+ was a one-way ticket to having your images consumed by Google for nefarious commercial use. About a week ago, I got an email invitation to join the G+ field testing. As a photographer, I figured I’d at least see how it worked and if it had promise. My thoughts below are to give you an idea of how Google Plus functions and why I think it is interesting.

Circles in the Stream

The Google+ feed is called your “stream,” and it’s made up of all the posts from individuals in your “circles.” What? Let me explain. Unlike other social networks, G+ can allow unidirectional and bidirectional sharing to as many or few people as you like. Consider the other major networks, for a moment.

Twitter: This is a fairly unidirectional system. You tweet to “followers” and they see your posts. You only see tweets from individuals you choose to follow yourself. With this system, people can choose to follow you, but you also need to choose to follow them if you want to see their posts.

Facebook: In FB, the only way people can really see your posts is to “friend” them. Once someone is a “friend,” communications are bidirectional. When you post, everyone can see it. When they post, it fills up your feed. While you can filter your incoming feed by putting your friends into groups, the problem here is that it is tricky to partition your outbound messages. For example, I have people as FB “friends” who are not interested in photos or videos of my kid. But with FB, any status message pretty much goes to everyone of my “friends” unless I take particularly tricky steps to block certain individuals. Because my message content is variable, I don’t want to have to customize my privacy settings every time I post a status update.

So these two models offer some pros and cons, depending on the kind of messages you like to send. And this is why G+ is unique. You can not only partition your contacts into groups (Circles), but you can also filter your posts to broadcast to as many or few people as you like. Moreover, while people can add you to their Circles (follow), you don’t have to put them in your own Circles. This system then becomes a hybrid of the FB/Twitter paradigms, depending on how you choose to organize your contacts.

Broadcasting with G+

There are two ways of sharing information on G+. You can make a Public post or you can make a Limited (restricted) post.

Public posts are seen by everyone out there who has placed you into one of their Circles, regardless of whether they are in one of yours. Public posts are also visible on your own profile page at G+, so anyone browsing people there will see them. A public post, in many ways, is like a blog. Anyone can see it if they go there.

Limited posts are visible only to the people in your Circles. Moreover, you can choose which Circles to share with, allowing you to direct your message to specific groups. Limited posts are power-tweets. I can message my close friends, my family, or people interested in my photography. Or I can broadcast it to all my Circles (similar to a traditional tweet). Those individuals who are not in a selected Circle will not see Limited posts at all.

A special kind of limited post is one that you restrict to one or more individuals. In this way, I can essentially have a private or group message thread in my stream that nobody else sees. This is an interesting concept because it means I don’t have to jump back and forth between message windows, etc. to hold such a conversation. To do this, all you need to do is type +Person’s Name into your status box and that person will be tagged and notified. Make sure no other Circles are selected, and you’ve got a private message thread.

To Circle, or not to Circle?

As you can see from the previous section, the way your messages are shared depends on:

  • Whether or not someone is in your Circles
  • Which Circle an individual is in
  • How you choose to limit your message distribution

The obvious fallout from this is Circle management. First things, first. Do you add someone to your Circles just because you received a notification that they added you? That depends. When you are added to someone’s Circle, you’ll be notified of the action. You can then ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I want to see what these people are sharing in my Stream(s)?
  2. Do I think that these people would be interested in my directed (Limited) posts?

To answer the first question, G+ gives you a special stream, called Incoming. This is a stream of posts from people who are not in your Circles, but have added you to theirs. It’s kind of a G+ “purgatory.” For people you don’t actually know, you can see if their content is interesting and adds value. If it does, you may wish to add them to one or more of your Circles.

The second question is more straight-forward. If you add me to a Circle and I can see that you’re obviously a photography enthusiast, I have no problem just putting you in my “Photographers” Circle. This will allow you to see things I broadcast to that select group that I may not wish to share publicly.

Circle Management 101

The best way to use G+ is to devise a well thought-out Circle strategy before you start. G+ gives you some default Circles when you sign up, but you can also create custom ones. You can put people into multiple circles– something that can be very useful. Consider a basic strategy:

Family: Your immediate family; people who you can comfortably share photos of your kids with.

Friends: People who you really know and don’t mind sharing personal details with.

Professional: People who you may or may not know on a personal level, but you wish to share professional content with. In my case, photographers.

Following: People who you want to follow, but may or may not wish to share information with. This is a good spot for people who are prolific posters with content that may or may not be relevant to your professional circles, i.e., celebrities and the like.

You can then make lots of smaller circles, like “college friends,” “work friends,” etc. By making smaller circles, you can direct your outbound posts to specific groups, and also filter your incoming stream to show only those individuals.

Small Circles: An Example

Let’s say that I have 150 people in my “friends” Circle (ok, I’m being optimistic). Of those, I have 5 UCLA buddies who I want to stay close to, so I create a Circle called “UCLA” and add just those 5 people. Most of the time, I’ll just send stuff out or view my “Friends” Circle, but today I’ve decided to try to organize a get-together for just my college pals. I’ll send a Limited message to just my UCLA Circle. I can then filter out all the incoming posts by viewing just the UCLA stream and the six of us can share our conversation. What’s cool here is that my UCLA buddies don’t need to create the same Circle on their end. What they see is a message that is limited to just six people. When they add comments (reply), only the six of us will see those comments.

Photo Sharing: A Good Idea or a Copyright Nightmare?

One of the first things I heard about Google Plus was that they’d steal the rights to your photos. Whoa! That’s a deal-breaker for any serious photographer. While posts were circling around Twitter and Facebook about Google’s “evil” terms of use, it turns out that the authors of these stories were casually omitting parts of the G+ TOS. As it turns out, Google does not own your images. They explicitly say that in the TOS. But they do need your permission to post images on G+. That’s because they’ll do things like resize the images into thumbnails so you can share them (which is why you posted the image in the first place). Crisis averted. For more on this tempest in a teacup, read here.

As it turns out, I really like posting images to Google+. Why? It doesn’t mangle your images (something that FB is notorious for). G+ uses Picasa on the back-end to host your uploaded images and videos. You can view EXIF data, tag people, add locations (with Google Maps), and add comments and captions to your photos in a far easier interface than anything on FB.

Image sharing on Google Plus is clean and crisp, using Picassa under the hood.

If you’re new to G+, don’t forget to check your Picasa Privacy Settings to prevent unwanted downloading of your images. For me, I only upload small (800px or less), watermarked JPEGs, just to be safe.

The Future

Right now, G+ is still in field testing, and I hear that new features are coming soon. One thing that many people have asked for is the ability to merge and organize their Circles. In less than three weeks, G+ has over 18 million users. That’s some really fast growth, especially considering that the only way in right now is via an email invite. While I’m still by no means an expert on G+, I can say that it looks to be a very promising platform because I don’t have to mix business with personal data. I’m also not bombarded by posts from people seeking Farmville items or requests to join online Mafias (yet). This separation of data streams under a single platform, combined with a visually pleasing way of sharing images, is why I think Google Plus is going to be great for photographers.

You can add me to your Circles and I’ll see you there!

For more information on how to use Google Plus, check out Colby Brown’s article.

3 thoughts on “One Ring (Circle) to Rule them All? My Google Plus Experience”

  1. I enjoyed your article. I know G+ has made my OCD happy and my stream isn’t getting spammed all the time. 🙂

  2. Very well-written article, Jason. I was also a little hesitant about G+ but now that I am using it I love it! I found your article to be the best one about the new G+ features I’ve seen so far. I obviously have much to learn and your article is helping me make great strides in learning G+. Thank you!

  3. thanks, enjoyed the article
    I do like G+, was on the trial to start with and it is developing all the time;
    would like to mention 2 things however:

    on twitter you can make lists of specific people and then follow the lists and shift between them instead of following the whole stream. You can even make those lists secret so no one knows who is on them. Pretty much like streams, although I haven’t found a way to post to only one of the lists

    on facebook you can make lists and then post to these lists. I haven’t found a way to follow only the lists I have made, but it is fun posting to only one or two of the lists and keeping the rest out of it

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