I posted to Google+ last week a thinking-out-loud piece about circles on there, and that my first thought is that they're not what they are cracked up to be. Specifically, it feel like that if they were just called 'lists' they would be exactly the same, except you wouldn't feel like you'd been promised more and been left wanting. As I hoped, it provided a great springboard for some thought-provoking comments, about what circles meant to each person, and there were some good points about how the metaphor promotes certain ways of thinking about their use, and the potential for fine-grained sharing and accountability. At the end of it all though, I still felt nonplussed (ahem), but for a different reason, well reasons. I thought that what I wanted from circles was intersections, Venn diagram views, circle-sharing and so on, but in fact what I want is so much simpler. I want to be able to search and filter as an information consumer, and I want to be able to share publicly or privately when being an information publisher.
As a consumer, circles are the wrong way around. One of the big changes to publishing in a post-internet world is that the barrier to publishing has gone, and so instead we use filtering after publishing to control the flow of data that reaches us. Circles force us to think about who we want to push our data to, as well as who we want to receive data from. Whilst that may be clever on paper, to me this is combining two paradigms, which for many (for me, at least) is just too much like hard work. Publishers used to do much of the filtering for us, so we could select an outlet and trust the information would be, for the most part, the sort of information we wanted. Then we got used to doing it ourselves, setting up our filters so that, for the most part, the got the information we wanted. One method at a time acts like a funnel, combining both acts like an information dam.
As a publisher, why so complex? When I post something on the internet, whether it's a message or a photo or a video or a piece of music or an article, I want to do one of two things. That's right: two. Either I'm publicly publishing, which means that I want as many people as possible to see what it is I'm publishing, or I'm communicating, which means that I want a small, select group of people to see whatever it is i'm sharing with them. In the first case, I'm putting something out there in the public domain for consumption, where I don't want to restrict it's readership: I want the reverse, I want the biggest audience I can find. In the second case, I'm communicating, privately, with one person, or a small select group. The communication is for their eyes only, and of course those people will know that. These people don't need telling not to 'reshare' what I've just sent to them: be it a personal message to my girlfriend, some photos to my parents, a business idea to a couple of close colleagues. In the former case though, publishing, of course I don't want to restrict others viewing or sharing. If I did, I wouldn't publish it.
To do these two things, I need two choices: publish (to the world) or communicate (to a group, maybe of one). That's it. And this can be done by having a blog and an email account. Or, just a Twitter account. Sure, there's room for improvement: email was never designed for threaded conversations: Twitter is often too restrictive. And there are certainly cases where being able to grow the group of people in a communication after it has started would be useful (it makes less sense to try and shrink the group). But circles are just far too complicated for my needs. Maybe I'm in the minority, that most people want to finely control exactly who can access each bit of data they put out there, but for me it's not complicated. It's either public, or its private: that's it. Everything after that is filtering.