Sunday, July 10, 2011

One big feature social networks really need: Channels

Like many others, I have been playing around with Google+ to see what the new kid on the block has to offer. And it does have some good things going for it, with the concepts of Circles providing a pretty nice approach to privacy.

Unfortunately, it suffers from the same flaw that Facebook and Twitter have always had: it makes the naïve assumption that when you follow someone, you want to hear everything they have to say. In other words, it treats us as one-dimensional beings, which doesn’t match the ‘real world’.

This is something I have always found particularly painful on Twitter, both as a tweet consumer and a tweet producer.

As a consumer, I end up not following a bunch of interesting .NET folks because they’re too ‘noisy’, meaning they tweet about a lot of unrelated things that I don’t care about. I’ve tried to follow Scott Hanselman’s philosophy and let the river of crap wash over me, but it just didn’t work for me. I guess I couldn’t take the smell.

As a producer, I end up not tweeting many things I would want to say, because I know that a lot of my 2500 followers only care about the .NET side, and I don’t want to add crap to their rivers. For instance, I follow tennis closely, but I’m not going to tweet super insightful things like “OMG, Federer lost!!”, because I know most followers don’t care.

So to summarize, I’m missing out as a consumer, and repressed as a producer. Sad! :(

Aren’t Twitter hashtags the way to follow topics instead of users?

Twitter hashtags are an ugly hack over a weak platform, and don’t do much to solve this.

First of all, as a producer, it makes no difference to my followers, since they will see my tweets no matter what hashtags they contain.

As a consumer, hashtags fail pretty badly for a number of reasons. First of all, many people don’t use them correctly. They get misspelled, forgotten, and often conflict with unrelated things. But more importantly, they assume that you want to hear about that topic from everybody, while in many cases I only want to hear what a selected set of users are saying about that topic.

If I could set a search criteria for each user that I follow, I might be getting somewhere, but that’s just not an option today. And even that would work poorly given the inconsistent use of hashtags.

But don’t Google+ Circles solve this issue?

No, not one bit! Circles are about privacy and nothing else. The issue I’m discussing here has nothing to do with privacy; it’s about filtering of public information.

I see people saying that Google+ successfully merges what Facebook and Twitter are good at: connecting with friends and having a public voice. They are wrong! Let’s put that to the test…

Let say I convince all my family to get on Google+ (a tough challenge, but bear with me). I add them to my ‘family’ circle and they do the same thing. We can share family things with great privacy; that’s nice, and is where circles shine.

But now let’s say I’m also using Google+ the way I use twitter today, and write a whole bunch of things about .NET.

What happens when my family members click on their ‘family’ circle? They’re inundated with all that .NET stuff from me that they couldn’t care less about! Their first reaction is that they want to go back to Facebook, where they don’t see that ‘work’ stuff.

Now let’s look at a second scenario: I want to publicly share various things about both .NET and tennis. They key word here is publicly. I don’t want to have to add everyone who can read my tennis and .NET comments two circles, since I want it to be wide open. Circles are just not meant to solve this.

The answer: Channels

One simple way to solve this is to add a concept called ‘channels’. Here is how it would work:

First everyone can (optionally) define a list of channels. In my case, I might create channels called ‘tech’, ‘tennis’, and ‘personal’. For each channel, you can write a one line ‘advertisement’ of what you generally discuss there. e.g. my tech channel might say ‘stuff I work on, mostly related to .NET and NuGet'.

Then whenever you share something, you can choose whether it should go to everyone or just some channel. Note that when I say ‘everyone’ here, I really mean ‘everyone that is allowed to see it’. Again, channels are not a privacy concept; they are orthogonal.

Finally, when you follow someone (i.e. add them to a circle), you get to choose whether you want the whole person, or only some of the channels. e.g. my mom would pick my ‘personal’ channel, while some .NET folks may choose ‘tech’, and others might leave it unfiltered and get it all (which would be the default, as it is today).

As an additional option, you could attach a channel to each circle. e.g. my ‘family’ circle would use to the ‘personal’ channel, so I don’t have to think about it when I share from there. Note that this setting only applies to what I share. For each family member that I follow, I can still select what I want from their channels (which are likely not named the same as mine).

This may seem a bit complicated, but I don’t think it would be in practice, because:

  • Users coming from Facebook who only use it to connect to friends would not define any channels.
  • When you start following someone, you’d typically follow the whole person, as you do today. Then if you start getting too much noise from them, an easy-to-find option would allow you to tune it down. e.g. the context menu on my ‘tennis’ comment would offer “Don’t show any more ‘tennis’ comments from this user”. Conceptually, this is similar to Facebook offering you to ignore Farmville entries from some users, and that’s an easy concept to understand.

So it would not make the platform any less approachable to newbies, but the extra power would be readily available when needed.

Good old blogs have had that forever

Interestingly, if you view ‘things that you share’ as ‘blog posts’, and ‘following someone’ as ‘subscribing to their RSS feed’, you find that the channel feature I describe here is almost identical to the concept of tags/labels in a blog.

e.g. You subscribe to to get all my posts, and to to only get my posts about NuGet.

So the basic concept is far from new, but for some reason the big social networks have not caught on to it.

Will this feature ever be available?

Well, that’s good question! My hope is that enough people want it that the big social networks will eventually want to implement something like it.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer Google+ to be the one offering this, since I think it has a model which lends itself to it best.

And if all else fails, I’ll just have to start a new social network. Or not! :)


  1. Circles do solve this issues (well very nearly) You can choose to share with any circle (or combination of circles) and only those circles will see your update.

    The current limitation is that this is purely additive.
    You cannot currently say "Public -SomeCircle".
    You need to remove public and explicitly add all circles that you do want to send to.

    However for now this is fine. I'm sure Google are working on circle subtraction as we speak.

  2. @Rory: no, they actually don't. See my "But don’t Google+ Circles solve this issue?" paragraph above. Circles are about producer-driven privacy, while Channels are about consumer-driven filtering. May seem similar, but it's very distinct in practice.

  3. In your previous scenario, you asked....

    "What happens when my family members click on their ‘family’ circle? They’re inundated with all that .NET stuff from me that they couldn’t care less about! "

    If used correctly, this is simply not the case. All you have to do is to share your posts to the appropriate circle. ie You only share .Net stuff with your .Net Circle.

    For the moment, you are the one who controls member ship of a circle, but I can't believe that Google aren't working on public circles or something similar, which would let anyone choose to belong.

    I'll take your point that currently, it's a little restricting to have the producer be the one in control, but this depends on the nature of the sharing.

    Bear in mind that social networks aren't typically based around the "Mass producer" but on the idea of people who walk in various circles. (Hence Google's approach)

    Social networks are typically targeted (at first) at people with a small and medium quantity of connections. This means that it's not unreasonable to have them control the access that people have to their stream.

    Once the network grows sufficiently based on this, then you can consider targeting the larger celebrity and company based scenarios.

    After all there's no point targeting these larger entities unless you've already got a lot of people on the network.

    If the network isn't teaming with (or at least appearing to team with) lots of people, then there's no point in these larger entities joining.

    "Producer controlled" vs "consumer controlled" is however a very interesting point. Personally I prefer to have a degree of control over that, where I had/have none on twitter.

    I look forward to being able to give over a modicum of control to public access

  4. Definitively something we all want; some people just didn't realized yet they want it :)

    Can we vote for this feature somewhere ? :p

  5. @Rory: "If used correctly, this is simply not the case. All you have to do is to share your posts to the appropriate circle. ie You only share .Net stuff with your .Net Circle."

    Sorry, but I disagree. This is about being able to *publicly* share things about multiple topics (and this is not just for 'celebrities' and 'companies'). Circles just do not help at all here. I added a section to that paragraph to clarify further.

    The 'public circles' you refer to are similar to what I suggest here. And that is my main point: they don't exist! :) I would not personally call this concept 'public circle', but that's a detail.

  6. I love the idea, but I'm worried that having two levels of "categorization" is too much of a geek thing. Will normal consumers "get it"? Most don't want to think that much about connecting with their friends.

  7. @Rob: I agree that it starts being a bit of a geek thing, but the point I make in the "This may seem a bit complicated..." paragraph is that most non-geeks won't really have to deal with it. They won't create channels, and the site can make it super easy for them to exclude other's noisy channels.

  8. Facebook doesn't have channels exactly, but does have lists. And you can mark any of your posts visible to any of those lists--via an allow/deny mechanism so you can limit access as you need. The only thing I feel it is missing is the ability to make lists of lists, or have easy access to your favorite allow/deny combinations. Right now they only allow one default allow/deny combination to be active at any time, and you can't switch it without rebuilding the combination when you want to switch back.

  9. The idea is not bad, but circles do solve the issue you are having somewhat, it just takes a few clicks on your part to share stuff only with the groups of people that want to share it with

  10. @Jonathan: Facebook lists are only about privacy. They do nothing to let you share things publicly about multiple topics without everyone getting everything.

    @BlackTigerX: for the same reason, G+ Circles do not work here.

  11. I for one dislike having to choose which circles/channels I want to publish to. It wastes several precious seconds of my life ;-)

  12. @superkinhluan: and you wouldn't *have* to. It's all about options. Now go on with your precious life :)

  13. This is the main reason why G+ will never be useful to me.

    I use Facebook primarily for Friends and Family, where I pretty much want to see and read everything, in general, and I know that I can share personal things like photos of my daughter, and everyone will be happy to see it (I hope :P).

    I use twitter as the "river", and is primarily tech based. I share other things, but my followers have come to expect that (basically what I find interesting).

    G+ is trying to be both with the concept of circles. But the river washes over my quaint little township of friends and family and makes the whole thing pointless.

    Channels as you have described are _exactly_ what we need.

    You explained it well, but it seems some people are still confused by it and think Circles solves the problem.

    Here's another explanation that will help people 'get it'. Circles let you pick who gets to see what, but YOU have to choose who and what, not the consumer. Channels let you produce something and let your consumes choose whether they see it or not. HUGE DIFFERENCE PEOPLE. HUGE. Get it yet? :)

  14. Totally with David on this one - I posted a request for this back when Plus was Buzz in January 2010 :(

    I'm also surprised that nobody seems to be offering this. As David says, Circles *do not* solve this problem. The consumer needs to decide which posts they want to see, not the producer. People should be able to choose whether they see my .NET posts, Holiday photos, etc. - I shouldn't have to manage that.

    David mentions "channels"... Plus already has something called "Sparks". I think these overlap a little, so it may make sense to combine them - let us pick some "Sparks" when we post, and people can choose to only see posts in certain sparks (or excluding certain sparks) when they follow someone.

  15. @infinity88 & @DanTup: glad to hear some people 'get it', after seeing all the insistence that 'circles do solve the issue' :)

    I haven't spent much time with Sparks yet. If they can integrate the concept in there, that works for me, as long as the scenario is covered.

  16. It's frustrating when something is so close to being useful, but is missing something obvious that you'd think is a no-brainer.

    My coffee pot for example. You can't pour it without it dribbling all the place. Literally, you cannot pour it dibble-free. WTF... COFFEE POT: YOU FAIL AT BEING A COFFEE POT! It's LITERALLY YOU'RE ONLY PURPOSE! Jeeze :P

    I'm ok.

  17. Well, I posted the idea on Google Moderator: But given the confusion here, I don't expect wide support there :(

    @Infinity88: the difference is that there are coffee pots that work well, while there is no social network that does :)

  18. I'd posted it in Moderator in the past (for Buzz), but the link seems broken now :(

    I haven't used Sparks much, but they seem to group (non-Plus?) content into categories/topics. These groupings might make sense to reuse (or a user could make their own up, like tags - either could work).

    Your moderator link doesn't work here - just loads a form for creating a new one :(

  19. Found your moderator link (and voted on it)

    Some similar things maybe worth voting on:

  20. @DanTup: nice links, especially the 2nd and 3rd. I voted them up!

  21. Good idea, this is why I have two separate blogs (and sometimes wish I had a few more). All my friends complain when they follow me on twitter because I mainly put tech stuff up.

    How did you envisage it working? If I add you to a circle do I get all your channels by default? Or do I just get stuff that isn't in a channel? Or must I choose at that point? If you invent a new channel do I get that automatically, or must I explicitly subscribe? Can I put different channels of you in different circles?

  22. @Mark H: yes, by default you'd get all channels, though you could choose at this point. I suppose there could be inclusions and exclusions. As for putting different channels of a person in different circles, I didn't think this far! :)

  23. I feel that the fact that Google+, Facebook or Twitter do not have a feature such as you describe makes it visible that they have been developed in a monolingual space; as a speaker of one of the smaller European languages I have an apparent need to publish messages in a way which would allow people who don't understand my native Finnish to filter out the messages I have written in it and only see the ones in English, for example.

  24. @Jaakko: Good point about languages. Though I would argue that Google should be able to automatically handle this by relying on the power of For any given language, I should be able to choose between:
    1. Display the message as is
    2. Auto translate it into my language
    3. Ignore it

  25. I want to follow USER.CHANNEL!

    It's a no brainer. Thanks David for posting that. I hope we don't have to wait another five years and yet another social network to get that feature implemented.

  26. Thanks David -- this is really good feedback... Keep it coming.

  27. Thank you David,
    I'm too noisy but I want as much people as possible to follow this.

    In my opinion, this is a close-to-perfect description of *Content Channels* functionality, which was independently invented by so many people and which is in my opinion absolutely a must for Google+ to flourish after its release.

    I would encourage your readers to vote for this proposal on Google Moderator and to discuss it under corresponded Google+ post (see it many for parallel ideas and related links.)

  28. Thanks Vladimir. It does seem like a lot of people are coming up with very similar idea, which just might be a sign that they are good ideas! :)

  29. Isn't public with channels solved using blogs? Create multiple RSS feeds, or simply multiple blogs, and people can subscribe to whichever parts they like.

  30. @Lex: yes I covered that above (see 'Good old blogs have had that forever' section). But that doesn't make it any less interesting for social network to support.