My Take On the Great Google+ Circle Debate

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Original at Bibliothèque nationale de France

To Share Circles or not to Share Circles, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of organic growth, or to seek rapid growth from a Sea of followers.

Shared Circles are and always have been controversial, even a sore spot for some, since almost the earliest days of the Google+ social network. Google, having failed to move our friends and family en masse from Facebook as they might have secretly dreamed they could, was left in the same place as Twitter: plenty of users, but how do they find each other?

Before Shared Circles, some people used various workarounds to share lists and groups of people who they felt were worth following. Shared Circles simplified the process and must have felt like a godsend for some people. It wasn’t long before someone discovered they could game this system to their advantage, of course, and the tension between when a Circle Share is “spammy” or “low quality” and when it is “quality” and “curated” has existed ever since.

Any time Google+ experiences an explosive growth period, which happens by and by and then plateaus and quiets down, the issue rears its head again, each time seemingly more magnified than the last, as the new people who join are farther and farther removed from the explorer spirit of most early adopter types. The percentage of lazy marketer types who want the quick fix amplifies, and they will use any trick in the book to look like they’re succeeding. They may even feel they are.

Circle Sharing, however, is far too complex to reduce to “good” vs. “bad”. They’re a spectrum. The extreme end is massive, entirely non-curated, gamified pyramid schemes where the person sharing the Circle always adds themselves, always asks you to +1, Comment, and Share to be included, never explains why anyone is in the Circle, and drops the names of a few “power users” into it having never interacted with them once. Their names inevitably tell you nothing important about who is in the Circle or why they are being shared, beyond the fact that they followed the rules to be included, which were easier than redeeming cereal box tops.

There is no “Circle Sharing Nirvana”, as there is no nirvana of any kind (unless you’re metaphysically inclined towards Eastern Wisdom Traditions). Everyone makes mistakes, everyone is imperfect. The question is whether you learn from those mistakes, and persist in doubling down on mistakes in the face of all evidence of failure. I made mistakes, but those who knew better than I showed me better ways. On the whole I was lucky, I tended to avoid adding vaguely defined Circles or Massive Circle Shares, the latter of which are the source of the greatest controversy.

Even so, I can tell you that when you add a Circle of 500 Linux users, they aren’t all Linux users. Someone heard about that Circle Share and added themselves just to inflate their numbers. Unless you can vouch for each person in the Circle, it happens. Over time, I have removed hundreds of accounts I added through Circles who were not what they appeared to be. This has never happened when the Circle involved only people the sharer could personally vouch for.

In the end, some of the smallest, most focused, most curated Circle Shares, combined with following and being followed organically by a select group of individuals, brought more reward to me than all the Massive Circles I have been shared in (usually without my consent from people who have never once spoken to me), or even Google+’s Algorithmic Suggested User List.

I’m not being sentimental, this is the truth. Google’s algorithms do not treat all Google+ users equally, and follower counts are only one of many factors they use, including manual curation. Some user profiles carry “authority” with Google+: the algorithms, and even the Google+ Team itself, pays more attention to these users than others. Things like being consistently active, reliable in certain types and in quality of activity and content, building good connections and relationships, carry significant weight.

A few high authority profiles engaging with your posts and content can matter more than hundreds, thousands of low authority profiles engaging for the sake of follower growth. Nearly every post I have ever shared that went viral, did so not because of my large follower count, but because of a smaller number of high authority profiles who engaged with it initially.

Let me be clear: not all high authority profiles are “authorities” in any particular area. Some are very average people, who have simply been consistently active and built the trust of many people on the network. They may be anything from celebrities to house wives, college students, bachelors working menial jobs. I’m not pretending that I have charted specific data to prove this, but having been on Google+ since the invite period, and having gained a large following, and observing it over time, this conclusion is undeniable to me:

Google cares less that you are an authority in some topic, and more that you have proven you are consistent and invested both in Google+ itself and in the connections you have formed here. Call it their way of rewarding the living in what some people call a “Ghost Town” (it isn’t, but Google has had a hard road to prove that). They aren’t fooled by your schemes. Not entirely, at least, and they will be less fooled as time goes on.

Seek out “The Reliables”, the ones who don’t battle for the largest follower counts but for the quality and relevance of who they follow and who follows them, the ones who are here today and will be here tomorrow, a year from now, or five years from now if Google+ is still alive and thriving by then, the ones you know what to expect from, even if it is to expect the unexpected. The rest will fade away, or come and go as the wind blows. Share your Circles as if they were your own children, and adopt Circles according to the same mindset, and you will find more reward in a hundred people than in ten thousand.

Inspired by The Google Plus Great Shared Circle Debate