Fast Company

Circles Fatigue: The Dark Side Of Google+

One of Google Plus's most unique features, Circles, initially attracted users to the service and set it apart from competitors. But it may also be one of the network's biggest turnoffs--only a few weeks in, and Circles fatigue is taking hold.

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We're only weeks into the launch of social network Google+, and the search giant's answer to Facebook is adding some big numbers to its userbase. After spreading invitations to a select few to goose demand, letting the network spread virally, and then shutting down the invite mechanism due to "insane demand" (before reopening it shortly later), Google Plus has already shot past 10 million users. "There was a lot of buzz created around it being exclusive, but it really wasn't that exclusive," says George Gallate, global chairman of digital ad agency Euro RSCG 4D, complimenting Google's rollout of Google Plus. "Their marketing was very clever."

Yet even after overcoming the hurdle of the social network's rollout (especially compared to the failed launches of Google Buzz, Orkut, and Wave), there's still the giant hurdle of the social network's user retention. It's one thing to get people to register for the service, but it's an entirely different headache to keep them on the network--to create active users, in other words. "I think they're going to have an issue with real activation," Gallate says. "To take off, and hit that 750 million user mark, people are going to have to pay a lot less attention to Facebook, and a lot more attention to Google Plus."

Unfortunately, one of its biggest differentiators, which initially attracted users to the service--Google+ Circles--may also be one of the network's biggest turnoffs.

The issue with Circles, the feature that enables users to categorize their friends into various social groups, is fatigue. If you're a member of the services, it's likely you've already received dozens and dozens of adds from acquaintances on the network. Many found that it was initially fun to classify these contacts into groups, especially with a slick UI designed by ex-Apple "wizard" Andy Hertzfeld. But soon, some found the fun task became a chore. "I fell in love with the interface as soon as I got it, but I did realize that I'm going to end up with too many circles," Gallate says. "I can see there being limitations in managing large number of Circles, despite how good [Google's] promotional videos are. I can see I'm going to get to a point where I might've been a little bit too clever with the number of Circles I started."

Gigaom's Mathew Ingram chalks it up to what psychologist Barry Schwartz has called the "Paradox of Choice," meaning that "too much choice actually makes it less likely [users] will take advantage of a feature." He adds, "The process of filtering hundreds or even thousands of people into groups is time-consuming and somewhat frustrating," and could cause Circles fatigue. AllThingsD strikes a similar tone, highlighting just how complicated friending is on Google Plus compared to other networks.

Personally, I've already started to feel that fatigue. In playing around with Google Plus in the past weeks, I've started to feel that Google Plus is asking too much from me. Rather than classify my contacts as I might subconsciously in real life--as family, friends, or coworkers--I've been forced to consciously determine my relationships with these people online. Suddenly I was dealing with add requests from distant acquaintances from college extracurricular programs; from friends' parents; from friends of friends; from friends of a friends' girlfriends; from colleagues I like and from colleagues I don't; from forgotten ex-coworkers; from strangers; from enemies, even.

It's overwhelming. Perhaps I'm slightly OCD, but even the process of creating a group name has become a hassle. I had friends from "Fast Company" and then friends from "FastCompany.com;" roommates from "6E" (my apartment number) and roommates from college; and even a group called "Top Gun," whose purpose I struggle to remember. Several of my Circles had just one "friend." A "Circle" of one might sound a little zen, but it mostly just sounds sad. After a while, I simply gave up.

Have you started to experience Circles fatigue, too?

That's not to say any other social network has solved the issue of grouping friends. Facebook, with its 750 million users, is an incredibly messy social graph--the average user has 130 friends. It's why so many smaller, more tightly controlled social graphs have risen in popularity, from Instagram and Path (for photo-sharing) to Foursquare (for location-sharing) to LinkedIn (for business contacts). Mark Zuckerberg has gone so far as to say that grouping friends is the "biggest problem in social networking."

Google Plus might have a sleek solution with Circles, but it's one that requires a great deal of effort.

[Image: Flickr user neon.mamacita]

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54 Comments

  • James Bareham

    Re-inventing the wheel is never easy. With that said, I think that Google has done a great job of creating a social network that is very different from Facebook (the current benchmark to beat), yet familiar enough to be simple to grasp the basics.

    However, while I completely understood the concept of 'Circles of Friends', it's taken more than a few attempts to make it work for me. I started with too many Circles, too many 'friends', and too many friends duplicated in too many Circles. In short, it was way too complicated. My breakthrough came when I choose to view Circles more like keywords, refining the content from the Stream into more palatable sections; friends, digital, industry, Google etc. It the stream so much easier to follow.

    I've also realized that the pitfalls of organizing Circles in Google+ is the same as organizing keywords in a database: too many keywords and the search results are too general; too few and you can't find anything at all. 

    Personally, it now makes complete sense to me and whether I am using Circles in the way Google intended I find completely irrelevant. For Google+ to succeed, early adopters simply have to find a way to make it work for themselves - and Google has to encourage and help them to do so.

  • James Bareham

    p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Helvetica Neue'}

    Re-inventing the wheel is never easy. With that said, I think that Google has done a great job of creating a social network that is very different from Facebook (the current benchmark to beat), yet familiar enough to be simple to grasp the basics.

    However, while I completely understood the concept of 'Circles of Friends', it's taken more than a few attempts to make it work for me. I started with too many Circles, too many 'friends', and too many friends duplicated in too many Circles. In short, it was way too complicated. My breakthrough came when I choose to view Circles more like keywords, refining the content from the Stream into more palatable sections; friends, digital, industry, Google etc. It the stream so much easier to follow.

    I've also realized that the pitfalls of organizing Circles in Google+ is the same as organizing keywords in a database: too many keywords and the search results are too general; too few and you can't find anything at all. 

    Personally, it now makes complete sense to me and whether I am using Circles in the way Google intended I find completely irrelevant. For Google+ to succeed, early adopters simply have to find a way to make it work for themselves - and Google has to encourage and help them to do so.

  • Guest

    Back off the granularity about 7 notches.  Progress beyond facebook is achieved when you're fairly comfortable that neither your mom nor your boss will hear you kvetching about being hung over.

  • domain catcher

    Couldn't agree more! I'd also like to point you to the significant number of users for whom the "Posts" tab still says "There are no messages to display". I just randomly clicked on a few and confirmed..
    I wish there was a way to find/track the actual numbers.

  • Nick Caffrey

    This feels like a post bought and paid for by Facebook (They have been known to try to damage Google through blogs/etc. in the past). Circles with one person? That's just ridiculous, and it feels like a contrived issue paid for by Facebook. 

  • greenbean

    What I want is a way to pick individual people each time I make a post. I can do this from my android app, but not from a browser.

  • David D. Lumsden

    Austin, I can understand your concern, but I think you're focusing on this a bit too much.  Circles isn't about micro-managing your friends, it's about grouping them effectively, so people that don't want or need to read a post don't even see it.  Example- as an event planner for a group at my university, I plan to use Google+ Circles to keep people from my high school from having the information on a university event cluttering their feeds.  It's as simple as that.  I have a catch-all circle called 'Mutual Friends' for people that don't fulfill any of the other Circle criteria.  I'd give something like that a shot before you complain about 'circles fatigue'. I hate to beat a dead horse, as the past 40 or so comments also ripped you up for this article.  But I can't be quiet when I read broken rhetoric like this.  Friending is not difficult on Google+, it requires some focus, sure, but it isn't hard.  Please stop acting like social interaction is a chore.

  • notsofast

    Kyle and others may not be susceptible to "circles fatigue" but that does not make the observation any less valid.  Indecisive people or poor organizers may have more trouble.  The suggestions to just use a small number of circles are good, but I think Austin is right to observe that a do-whatever-you-want user interface design can cause some people to inadvertently start off with an unsatisfying user experience.  Maybe decisive people can't see how one could get oneself into such a situation.

  • Carra Riley

    Austin ~  Keeping up with all of social media makes us tired.  I just thought the same thing last night and I know I am a vintage participant... fb groups, g+ circles and twitter lists...  So it boils down to a strategy... why are you connecting with the people.  It can't be done in a nanu second.. old word I  know.  Shot gun approach put them in big groups and don't worry.  But for businesses wanting to connect with their target market creating the RIGHT circles is going to be a great opportunity.. but it takes reading the profiles and creating the circles. 

  • acarr

    That's definitely true -- social networking fatigue is perhaps the larger problem. At what point are we a part of too many social networks?

  • JoshUng

    I see your point, but I think you may have tried too much at first.  What I did was have a circle for family, friends and coworkers.  Those are the people I want to see my posts.  I have another circle for people I just plan to follow, like on Twitter.
    I think as the site fills out (I'm not in tech, so I probably have much less friends on than you right now), I will start to add smaller circles.  Maybe some for old jobs, if I want a post just to be seen by old waiter friends etc.  But so many circles up front I think was a misstep.  Also, I think its important to have umbrella circles (one for all friends, so you don't need to include every little circle when you want them all to see it).

    Also, a circle of one (unless you do plan on adding more later) is useless, you're just as well off as just typing +theirname if you only want them to see something.

  • Gib Wallis

    Austin, I really can't see what the problem is, despite reading the article twice and all your comments.

    This is where you lost me:

    <quote>Rather than classify my contacts as I might subconsciously in real life--as family, friends, or coworkers--I've been forced to consciously determine my relationships with these people online. Suddenly I was dealing with add requests from distant acquaintances from college extracurricular programs; from friends' parents; from friends of friends; from friends of a friends' girlfriends; from colleagues I like and from colleagues I don't; from forgotten ex-coworkers; from strangers; from enemies, even.</quote>

    How is Google+ forcing you to do anything? When you decide to add someone to Circles, those categories that you said are already in your mind (family, friends, coworkers) are in Circles by default. Just drag them to the appropriate circle or circles.

    If you later decide to have another circle, add another circle.

    You have a straw man argument -- that the way circles are designed is too complicated or fatiguing. 

    But Google+'s circles aren't designed to be complicated. It's you who decides (1) whether to allow someone in; (2) how you want to group them mentally; (3) whether you want a complicated hierarchy (1,000 circles) or simple (Following, Sharing, Ignoring).

    When you write "Suddenly I was dealing with add requests from..." it sounds like the real fatigue isn't in circles, but in the added mental energy you're spending to manage migrating to a new social network. If those were just friend requests on Facebook, you'd have pretty much the same fatigue. If you setup a Flickr account for the first time time, you'd have a similar expenditure.

    On Facebook, this is pretty similar. If you use the Lists feature there, each time you add someone, there's the "how much do I want to share with this person?" question that comes up.

    If you're a broadcaster who never gets personal in the socialsphere (a la Scoble), then Circles become stream management rather than sharing management. Facebook doesn't have anything to filter by their  Lists, so the concept of stream management might be new to you if you haven't been using Twitter.

    For my part, I'm not using circles in a very sophisticated way simply because I'm not following a million people willy-nilly like when I joined Twitter, and my rolodex from Facebook and LinkedIn haven't arrived en masse yet. So I'm using it a little bit for stream management (photographers get their own circle because I love to flip through just a stream of great photography) as well as sharing management (only local people I go drinking with get to see my mobile photos.

    As more of my friends, acquaintances and contacts arrive in Plus land, I'm sure I'll be adding more circles and putting people into them so I can manage my stream and manage my sharing.

  • acarr

    Hey Gib,

    Thanks for you comment.

    I agree, Google+ is not forcing you to do anything. But the main reason Google+ added Circles was to differentiate itself from other social networks--to make the process of grouping friends easier/better.

    Sure, I could just make the groups simple (Following, Sharing, Ignoring, as you suggest), but that, to me, seems to defeat the purpose of using Google+.

    The point isn't that Google+ is forcing me to do something, but that Circles entails a subtle suggestion for me to force myself to classify my friends--lest I feel disorganized and sloppy. 

    You mention that I'd feel this fatigue if I were to migrate to any new social network, but I disagree. On Facebook, when I receive a friend request, I can either add that person or not add that person. From there, I can voluntarily choose to group that acquaintance or not. On Google+, I can't simply just add that person. Open a 'Add to Circles' notification you may have received. First, you see who the person is; second, you click 'Add to Circles'; third, you're takin to that person's profile, where you must again hover over the 'Add to Circles' button, before classifying that person into a particular group. This is no one-click process; it takes extra steps that are both mental and time-consuming. And if I want to use it in the way the network was intended--not just throw them in all-encompassing following/sharing groups--then I've found it can become a hassle.  

    David Pogue, of the NY Times, finds it very convenient. "[There] can be tiny circles (“Granny and Gramps”) or big ones (“Family Tree”), organization-based (“Fantasy League Buddies”) or arbitrary (“Annoying People”)." 

    However, after using the service for a few weeks, and doing my best to use it as it was intended, I started to still fatigue. Others have too, as indicated by comments here and articles (like Gigaom's), while others have not, as indicated by comments here and articles (like Pogue's).

    Hopefully that clears things up. Again, just to be clear, I'm not saying Facebook has solved this issue either--not by a long shot. I admire Google's attempt, I just don't feel it's a sustainable solution.

    Thanks again for your thoughts -- much appreciated,
    Austin