Jul 26, 2011

3 subtle-but-critical mistakes made by Circles

Google's Circles is out and it has some awesome potential; however, Google’s asking all of us to do a monumental task. They expect us to move all of our existing data, photos, friend connection, etc to their new system. On top of that, while I do think their product is an improvement over Facebook's groups in general, there are still some significant and unresolved issues that make it hard to justify a full switch.

1. Stop forcing me to show my close friends to my coworkers!

A correctly implemented social network would isolate and protect friend lists just like other data. Users shouldn't have to have a separate account to keep their coworkers from seeing their family.

This mockup has the same privacy controls used to limit access to posts; however, they are now used to limit access to your Circles themselves. The implication is that members of  the Family circle can see others in the Family and people in the Family-extended circle, but nobody else in my other circles.

This approach might be difficult for some novice users to understand. So, an easier feature is to just have an "Insulate this Circle" checkbox so that people in that circle can only see each other and that's it.

Now, when someone in my Family circle looks at my profile, all they see in my friends list is other family members.

2. Stop misrepresenting fans as friends!

Currently, Circles shows fan relationships as if they are more important than mutually agreed friendships. If this doesn't get changed soon, then the value of the network will degrade as people mistakenly friend people because the site misleads you into thinking you know the same group of people.

Here's an example, I have an invite from Moda Brasil to be friends, so I click the link to look at the profile. Here's what I see:

Really? Moda Brasil and I have Larry Page, Paul Bucheit and Urs Hölzle in common? Really?!? I know some of them might be in my Googlers circle, but are they in Moda's, too?

This list is located in a prominent place when viewing users' profiles... like it's the most important thing that I need to consider when deciding if we're friends. The fact that this person and I both want to follow Larry Page's posts means next to nothing. It's probably more important to me that Moda has 2766 connections than it is that we both have pending invites to Larry.

It's not just a problem here. The page where I have to decide if I know someone is even worse.

I created a test account "That Guy", added Larry Page, Sergey Brin and then invited my primary account. This means that my account, TomN, is the Observer and is looking at an invite from That Guy.

Here's what I see:
Screen shot from my pending invites.

We have 3 people in common? No we don't. We both fanned Larry, but that's hardly worth anything when it comes to making a decision about if I recognize That Guy.

Read my prior post discussing social currency if it's not obvious why this upsets me so much.

3. How can I keep something secret if I don't *know* it's a secret?!?

If someone looks at a friend's profile, I see all sorts of interesting data. The only problem is that I have no idea what they consider non-public.

All Circles has to do is put a special glyph next to non-public data, including the friends lists once they get #1 done.

The addition of these simple, privacy visual clues make it obvious what data is considered non-public. 

Also notice that "People in common" is now a useful "Mutual Friend". And, "In circles" is clearly labeled as "Is a Fan" as I mentioned in point #2 above.

Other minor recommendations

There are lots of Circle reviews out there pointing out other obvious stuff, so here's a pared down list of other recommendations:
  • Keep around the Invite Tree (who invited whom). If a user starts to spam, cut off whole branches aggressively and quickly. Reinstate accounts as needed. Let people know what they did wrong. Hidden rules frustrate users.
  • Add some automated way that real names can be validated. Maybe a credit card authorization check?
    100% dependency on the social Turing test doesn't work for famous people.
  • Consider never going with open sign-ups. Everyone must be invited by somebody else. If nothing else, it keeps the Invite Tree consistent.
  • Get a very open API out soon and make it powerful.


I just want to stay how impressed I am with the Circles UI and integration with exisitng Google products. Clearly, a heroic amount of cross-team coordination and effort was required to launch such a stable and compelling beta. It's easy to be on the outside and second guess what the roadmap should be. My suggestions are really just that, suggestions.

Keep up the great work!

[edit: changed title to reflect article better.]


  1. I entirely agree with this, Tom - except for the record, I won't be giving Google a credit card to validate my name...

    (And for the record, I'm entirely unclear about what people see in terms of who I've filed in which groups. It's a little worrying. :)

  2. One fun way validation could be done is that users buy a Circle's badge using Google Checkout. The checkout process costs $0.50 or something, validates your name and issues you a custom "badge" icon on your circles profile. Maybe a png overlay in the corner of your profile image.

    The graphical badge could include the name used on the credit card checkout.

  3. I like this. I think the "insulate" option is probably the simpler, and I would certainly default to on. I'm not sure insulate is the right word, but protect might be too negative ...

    On your second point, I would say that promoting common-friending and common-following are both useful, but do need to be separating. As in "5 of your friends are friends with X, so maybe you want to be friends with X as well" but also "5 of your friends follow Y, so maybe you want to follow Y as well." There may be a slight logic conflict here with point 1, due to inadvertent reveals of circle inclusion. Probably fixable.

    Separately, I would emphasize that the various friend-and-follow recommendation algos have to get way more sophisticated. I'm seeing a lot of V1 social network issues like ex-boyfriend problems, etc. The state of the art is better these days.

    On the privacy indicators, I have seen a "this post was shared privately, think before reposting" pop-up. That's awesome. More of that everywhere!

    Finally, I'm a fan of not requiring real names, but I'm guessing that whole discussion is on everyone's radar already.