Can We Ever Digitally Organize Our Friends?

Can We Ever Digitally Organize Our Friends?

When Google+ launched last week, one of the most discussed features was Circles. In case you haven’t read a single blog, Tweet, or Google+ post in the last week (and yet, somehow stumbled into this dark corner of the internet), Circles is Google’s way of allowing you to group people. You can put anyone into a one or more Circles such as “Friends”, “Acquaintances”, “Co-workers”, “People I Eat Brunch With”, “Cyclists”, etc. And you have to put a person in at least one group.

Many discussions have ensued about how people are organizing their Circles. Many have also praised Google’s elegant and unique implementation as a clear answer to Paul Adam’s research entitled “The Real Life Social Network“.

I’ve been thinking about grouping and organization of friends for a long time. As an information architect, it’s in my nature to want to organize and tag everyone I know. I even wrote a post in 2004 about the organization of my instant messaging list. In thinking about this for a little while, I’ve decided to try to document my thinking so far on Google Circles, as well as the larger context of digitally grouping people.

Why We Need Groups

I’ve noticed from reading a number of articles about Groups, Circles, Lists, etc. is the variety of use cases and needs. We see so many implementations because there are many needs. There are different use cases for publishers and consumers, public and private, symmetrical and asymmetrical. Before I talk about the challenges I think Google Circles, and any similar feature faces, let’s look at some problems grouping attempts to solve.


One reason for needing groups is because you’re only comfortable with certain people seeing what you’re talking about. For example, you may only want to share baby photos with family. Flickr’s Friends and Family settings are very much targeted for this use case.

Interest Context

Subtly different from privacy, you feel only these people need to know about what you’re talking about. An example might be asking for advice on what tires to buy from your car enthusiast friends. You don’t necessarily care that it’s public, you just want to make sure the right people read it. Currently, communities around interests is largely solved by services such as Yahoo!, Facebook, and Google Groups.

Local Context

Posts that are specific to your location such as “what’s going on tonight?” or “Anyone have tickets to the concert tonight?” should be targeted to friends within that geographic area.

Event Context

Similar to local context, when you’re at an event (e.g., Coachella music festival), you may want to communicate and publish only to your friends who are also at the event. Group messaging tools such as GroupMe and Beluga—and now Google’s Huddle—attempt to solve for this use case. Not surprisingly, all of these solutions are mobile-centric.

Organizational Context

Your college friends don’t know your ex-coworkers don’t know your softball team. Maybe you want to share a link about your alma mater or one on how your former company just changed CEOs.

Not Spamming Everyone

A corollary to the contexts is that one may not only want to publish a post to a specific audience, but may also feel self-conscious about spamming others with what’s deemed irrelevant material.

Targeted Consumption: Reading From a Specific Group

For any of the contexts above, you may also want to consume based on a grouping. Perhaps you wish to view only messages from friends also at Coachella. Or you want to read the latest tech news from the technology journalists and authors you follow. Twitter Lists is an example of a way to address such a use case.

What Google Circles Does Right

Anything that’s created this much discussion and buzz is clearly doing something right. While I think there are some challenges for Circles, they’ve done many things that I think are positive, innovative, or at least interesting.


Unlike Twitter Lists or Facebook’s Friend Lists (did you know you could organize Facebook friends into lists?), everyone in Google+ has to be in a Circle. This is a bold move and puts organization as the focus of the entire product. While forcing grouping may seem like a higher barrier to entry, their interface makes it as easy as adding a friend on other sites.

The Circle Interface

Circles is a delightful experience. It makes you want to add people just for the fun of it. I do feel the drag n’ drop interface is one that’s more suited for touch interfaces and may be too much effort for large collections of people. However, adding people to circles through their Suggestions is a cinch. If you haven’t tried deleting a Circle yet, you should. Delightful.

The Sharing Interface

Although not unique, the sharing interface is simple. I can easily type in the Circles I want to share a post with and it’s clear from looking at any post which Circle I shared it with. One caveat is that the Extended Circles option is a pretty confusing one, even for those of us immersed in this world.

Auto-Suggest Circle Members

In one of the first Circles I created, after adding only three people, Google started suggesting others to add and every single suggestion was correct. This made creating that Circle much easier. Unfortunately, none of the other Circles I created had suggestions. I suspect they are generated from the Google Group the members are a part of.

One Way Circles

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure some people I think are my friends don’t think the same of me. Likewise, that guy who calls me his “buddy” doesn’t need to know that I put him in the “Acquaintance” Circle.

Why Grouping Sucks

When I first started using Google+, I had a sense of déjà vu as I categorized my friends. I’d done this before… on Flickr, on Facebook, on Twitter, on my instant messenger contact list, and in my address book. Shortly thereafter, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth the effort to rigorously group everyone. Then I started thinking about whether it was ever worth the effort to do so. Because as much as one tries to emulate the real life social network and address Paul Adam’s research, there are some human subtleties we’re missing in the digital world.

The Soft Line

Have you ever had a Facebook or LinkedIn friend request where you weren’t sure whether to accept or not? There’s a soft line that separates a friend and an acquaintance.

It’s true that you can probably label everyone you met through an organization (school, work, etc.) but the boundaries quickly become blurred. Let’s say you met someone through your classmate but she’s not in your school. Does she belong in the school group? What about the person who sometimes hangs out with your group of friends? Or the guy you met dozens of times but only at parties?

We’re incredibly adept at knowing the right situations to include the right people. They’re not black or white rules and depend heavily on context: is it a party, who else is there, do they know any of the other people, have you talked recently, etc. Unfortunately, this skill and these implicit social rules we know are not easily translated.


I have a very close friend, Mike. We used to share an office together back in 2000. We talked about everything, went on trips, and hung out nearly daily. Today, I see him on average once every two months. We still share our thoughts and are there for each other for support, but life got in the way and our relationship is different now.

Sociologist Gerald Molenhorst has shown that we change half of our social network every seven years but there isn’t a Changing of the Guard ceremony here. It’s not entirely clear at what point Mike moved from one group to another.

Thus, maintaining digital groups has two problems. First, you don’t know when to move someone from one group to another because transitions happen gradually. Second, it’s simply a lot of effort to maintain. How often would you update the entire list? And if it’s not updated, how useful are the groupings, really?


I think I could run an open card sort for myself and probably come up with some good categorizations for my friends. However, once I’ve created these fancy Circles, will I actually remember who will see a given post? From my experience organizing my Facebook and address book, I’ve found that I don’t remember the complex taxonomies I dream up. In fact, I don’t know that I can list every person that’s in my “Family” group in Flickr even though it’s less than twenty.

When compounded with the high overhead of maintenance and likely outdated groups over time, it’s even less likely that I’ll know who I’m actually sharing a post with.

One use case where recall isn’t a concern is in consumption. If you’ve created a “Celebrities” group to read their content, it doesn’t matter if you don’t remember every individual in the group.

Can It Be Done?

The maintenance required for grouping our friends is too high and too vague. We simply don’t have the rules as clearly defined as programs require and even if we did, the parameters change. Your personal tastes change. The influential people change. Even your friends change. Keeping the groups accurate and remembering its members is a challenge.

The obvious question to ask is: what about automation? Google Buzz attempted to automatically determine social ties based on who you frequently emailed. That solution lead to disastrous results, linking a woman closely to her ex-husband.

However, Buzz’s nascent attempts and failures do not necessarily mean automation is untenable. If you’ve seen LinkedIn Labs’ InMaps, you’ll know that your network is simultaneously clustered and complex. You can almost make out the groupings but there are many nodes that overlap multiple categories or aren’t easily categorized at all.

A new app that launched last week, Katango, seems to be a technology demo of how we can use these clusters to auto-group your Facebook friends. I was impressed with how accurately they created logical groups that hadn’t occurred to me. Perhaps the smartest part of the app is that it then allows you to edit the group by removing people. This approach is smart because it’s easier to say, “this looks like my college drinking buddies… except that guy; he was only sort of with us” than it is to say, “this looks like my college drinking buddies… who’s missing?” Recognition over recall wins again.

Perhaps as we refine these patterns and technologies, we can start to not only recommend the grouping, but also recommend changes to the groups over time, thus lowering the maintenance cost. However, what I really wonder is whether we should be trying to mirror real life interactions at all. Instead of mapping, wouldn’t it be more interesting to change or create new behaviour?

Thanks to Dave Gray for his input and feedback on my draft (see his Google+ post on sharing) and to Coley Cheng for some masterful editing.


  1. Tobias Schwarz · 18 Jul 11

    I think there’s a dimension that people haven’t considered here: time. Someone who was a close friend before and has now drifted apart should still have access to things shared before (as close friend), but more importantly, someone who’s becoming a close friend at some point should not automatically gain access to “close-friend” information shared before that point.

  2. Nate · 18 Jul 11

    I like that a person can be in more than one circle. I think that mostly solves that problem of having to define who everyone is. We all have buddies at work and acquaintances at work. Nothing wrong with having the same person in ‘friends’ and ‘work’. That way you aren’t ever putting anyone in a box. You are just ‘tagging’ so the right filters are applied. Agonizing over whether to ‘friend’ someone or not goes away when you can just put them in ‘acquaintances’.

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  5. Karen Nguyen · 18 Jul 11

    Great points. I also really like the interface for grouping in google+. Interestingly, the act of categorizing my contacts reminded me to reach out to a few old pals who had fallen off of the immediate list over time.

    It’s unfortunate that Circles got such scathing internet protest. I think it’s the clearest example of an attempt to solve this exact problem. Their dynamic grouping changed over time as you interacted with the people in your proximity (either emotional proximity and immediate). It was trying to reflect the behavior we already have.

    I wonder if groups can be more naturally created by applying descriptors (ie tags) to people instead of placing a person into a box. The program can then suggest additional descriptors for the person over time based on the person’s interests.

  6. Karen Nguyen · 18 Jul 11

    Ahh, when said Circles got poor reviews, I meant Color. Those generic names get me every time.

  7. Bookmarks for June 22nd to Jul 15th 2011 : Bojates! · 18 Jul 11

    […] Can We Ever Digitally Organize Our Friends? « Design « kev/null – Some good thoughts on grouping people online. I agree and have noticed that some of my most interesting interactions on Facebook have been with people I would put in the vague acquaintance category, but with whom an online relationship has proven rewarding. […]

  8. Danielle · 18 Jul 11

    It really depends on how you define your groups. For example, I have the following circles (in order of my familiarity with the members):
    – EVERYONE IN THE WORLD!!! (for people I have no idea how they got recommended to me but who I may be interested in knowing at some point)
    – Following (Boing Boing, etc)
    – Acquaintances (people I met in passing or know by reputation)
    – Friends (people I don’t mind knowing where I went last weekend)
    – Family (blood)
    – Creativity (distro list of self-selected individuals who want to know about my art projects)
    – Gigsville (my community of both acquaintances, friends, and inner circle – no one leaves, they only join)
    – Inner Circle (the people I don’t mind knowing where I went last night)

    People don’t really leave these groups en masse (if someone’s in the inner circle, they’ll probably always be inner circle… once Pandora’s box is opened, they can’t unsee what they’ve seen) and it’s really easy to manage them one at a time.

    I like the idea of making a geographic circle, but think I’ll wait for nested circles before I start that undertaking… it’s one thing to know someone lives in LA, but it’s a totally different thing to know that someone lives 2 blocks from my neighborhood bar (i.e. “Happy hour, mid-city?”).

  9. links for 2011-07-18 « Brain Music – Gadgets, Neuroscience & More · 18 Jul 11

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  10. Si · 19 Jul 11

    Some great points about Google+ and I agree with what a lot that’s said.

    Having said that out of all the three main social networks – Twitter, Facebook and (soon to be) Google+ I do think that Google+ has got the right approach re. being able to filter your friends’ posts and your own posts by groups/circles.

    Contrast this with Facebook that lumps everyone into one Friendlist and makes it very hard to post to certain people.

    And Twitter does the same.

    What do I do when I want to post to a sub-set of my Followers or people who I follow? I can’t.

    How can I break the people who I follow into sub-sets? I can use lists but the current lists implementation is umm ‘clunky’ to put it politely.

    What do I do when I want to avoid there being a near endless river of tweets on different subjects from people who I know and people who I don’t know (i.e. different sorts of information?). There’s no way to filter these on the fly. And yes, I can use lists. But as I’ve just said, they’re clunky.

    So some great points, but out of the three social networks I do think that Google+ are onto something with their circles feature. And actually because of that, it’s one that I’m going to gravitate towards, despite not at all being a Google fan-boi.

    Facebook is great -a really well-thought out interface but with (for me) worrying privacy issues (it really doesn’t want anything that you do to be private).

    Twitter is great if you want to broadcast or to receive broadcast tweets back and follow public conversations. But if you want to do anything other beyond its core function, you quickly realise how underpowered it is. Perhaps Twitter as a product isn’t interested in facilitating semi-private group conversations. OK then.

    And I’ve mentioned already why Google+ is looking good – and in fact it’s doing the primary thing that I’m looking for in a social network already i.e. a way to filter posts and to to be able to filter your own posts to certain people.

    And it’s a real shame that Twitter – and Facebook – show no inclination to going in that direction.

  11. Jackson Lin · 19 Jul 11

    I wonder if perhaps we’re all over-thinking our circles?

    To me, I create circles organically. The family circle is obvious. And I know exactly who my friends are so I don’t have to think about that—and if you do, then perhaps you need to reevaluate what a friend is :)

    Everyone else starts off as an acquaintance. Then at a later time, if I feel the need to refine my circle, e.g. my hiking buddies, then I’ll create a new circle.

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  15. Daniel Jomphe · 21 Jul 11

    Thanks Kevin for such a great post!

  16. StartupDigest Design – July 22, 2011 · 22 Jul 11

    […] Can We Ever Digitally Organize Our Friends? From […]

  17. ignacio sanabria · 26 Jul 11

    And what we will do if we have no friends?

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    […] In addition, startups are flocking to Facebook with products and services to allow artists to market and sell products on the platform. Google+ does not have that kind of third-party activity behind it. For the time being, however, it’s worth your time to familiarize yourself with Google+, see how your friends are using it and consider how it applies to your business. ( kev/null, via Marginal Revolution) […]

  19. Quora · 7 Aug 11

    Will Google+ Circles suffer the same fate as Twitter Lists?…

    So I think the key comparison here isn’t Google Circles just to Twitter lists, but also to Email discussion groups and Facebook Groups. In the workplace, because there are clear structures of teams and roles, many pepole actively create distribution l…

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    […] We feel Google’s innovative approach to the social space is worth the controversy. It’s interesting to learn how one of the most important companies of the decade looks to change our lives even further. However, at the end of the day, maybe people don’t like to categorize their friends? […]

  21. Bookmarks for July 15th to Aug 22nd 2011 : Bojates! · 22 Aug 11

    […] Can We Ever Digitally Organize Our Friends? « Design « kev/null – Some good thoughts on grouping people online. I agree and have noticed that some of my most interesting interactions on Facebook have been with people I would put in the vague acquaintance category, but with whom an online relationship has proven rewarding. […]