Since the beginning of time -- or at least since the beginning of 1978 when the first dial-up BBS came online -- the digital world has been clamoring for a better place to have conversations.
The so-called BBS, or bulletin board service, the dial-up "online services" of the 1990s, the web 2.0 of the early 2000s and the social web of the last five years have all been attempts to create great places for people to interact, converse, teach, learn, argue and explore.
Each new generation of service has been better than the last. Now Google has taken it to the next level with a new feature called Communities.
How 'Communities' makes Google+ for everyone
New data released by Google this week shows that Google+ is growing as fast as Facebook did at its peak if you compare only "active users" of the service. If you include users of the Plus-one button, and other Google+ related services outside the main social network site, Google+ is growing far faster than Facebook or any other social site ever has.
Still, the actual Google+ user community has been divided. A hard-core minority is very engaged and active. A larger group are casual users. And the vast majority is made up of "lurkers" or occasional users.
In other words, Google+ has been the greatest social network ever for a certain kind of user (including Yours Truly), but something of a non-starter for the majority of users.
Here's the problem: People have turned to Google+ to discuss topics, but it has been fundamentally organized around people (circles).
I believe this structural flaw is largely responsible for the shyness, for lack of a better term, of the majority of Google+ users to get in there and engage actively.
Why most users don't post publicly on Google+
The uber-controversy about Google+ to date is around usage. If you bring up 10 random profiles, you'll discover that most aren't posting publicly.
Many of these users are posting privately, reading streams and even commenting. Why aren't they posting publicly?
I believe the answer is stage fright.
It's easy and comfortable to post anything on Twitter and Facebook.
Posting on Facebook is akin to saying something to a small group of family or friends. "Timmy's T-ball team just won their first game!" Everyone on Facebook is happy to hear about that.
But posting on Google+ feels like you're on TV. The camera is pointed at you, the red light is on, the lights are bright. Everything you say will be broadcast to who-knows-who.
Public Google+ posts feel consequential, and most people are nervous about that.
Everything on Google+ is controversial. You can post that the sky is blue and you'll get an argument.
For those who love to argue, Google+ is ideal. But most people don't love to argue. They want to learn, discuss and explore, but they don't want an intellectual fistfight every time they express a thought, feeling, idea or share an experience.
There's a lot of complaints on Google+ about the topics of posts. For example, I'm lucky enough to be on the Google+ Suggested Users List under the Technology category. That's the best category for me, because most of my posts are about technology.
But I also post about food, health, travel and culture in general. Many people who circled me because they care about tech are unhappy when I post about food or health or other topics deemed to be boring, offensive or annoying.
One person's passion is another person's irritant.
People passionate about software development might hate posts about cupcakes. People passionate about animal welfare may hate posts about someone's hunting trip. People passionate about global human rights may hate posts about reality TV.
And that's why Communities changes everything
The new Communities feature enables people to freely post to a group they know cares about the topic of interest.
In my own case, for example, if I've got some food- or health-related comment I'd like to put out there, I can now do it in the appropriate community. Everyone who gets the post is someone who actively signed up to engage on that topic.
For the people who have circled me, the post doesn't exist in my stream. But for me, it does, along with the comments below the post. And the posts in the communities I signed up for also show up in my stream, as if I had circled the people who post there. So to me, I'm still engaging with a single stream.
The only difference is that topics are much more relevant to me. And the stuff I post is more relevant to the people in those communities.
Google+ Communities makes everything more relevant to everyone.
Communities solves the stage fright problem with Google+. If I post something in a community, it feels far less consequential.
Posting publicly in a stream can be unnerving, like talking about your steak dinner in front of people you suspect might be vegetarians.
Posting in Communities, on the other hand, is like talking about a book at a book club, talking about sports in a sports bar or talking about tech at a tech trade show.
Now people can interact like they're on Twitter, tossing off comments but knowing they'll reach a receptive audience.
Want to post about your lunch like you do on Twitter? Go for it! Post it in the "What I had for lunch" community!
It's a win for people who want to hear about your lunch. And it's a win for people who don't want to hear about your lunch. Everybody wins!
Communities solves Google+'s undeserved reputation as a place only for geeks and photographers. I've said from the beginning that every interest is represented on Google+. Now, Communities creates explicit spaces where thousands of interests can be easily discovered.
Better still, topics within Communities are organized by category. So, for example, within the "Foodies Online" Community, you can post in categories that include "Wine O'Clock," "Food Fails," "Bacon" and several others.
No matter how specific or narrow your interests, you'll either find a Community and a category where all the conversation is focused, or you can create one yourself.
And like all great online conversation sites, Google+ Communities are moderated. The creator can both set up the degree of moderation, and also appoint other moderators.
Like the message boards of yesteryear, you can have threaded, categorized, moderated conversations. But because it's Google+, those conversations can be augmented with high-resolution photography, YouTube videos and Hangouts.
How to really use Google+ Communities
Setting up or joining Google+ communities is so easy no manual is required. Still, Google has published the manual.
Here's my advice about how to really take advantage of Google+ Communities.
Since Google+ launched publicly last year, users have tried to organize circles around topic areas. So in addition to circles called "Family," "Friends" and "People I don't really like but I need to follow anyway," people have created circles like "Movie fans," "Home beer brewers" and "LEGO maniacs."
In other words, people have created some circles organized around people, and other circles organized around topics.
Here's what you do. First, go see if the topics you've created circles around have Communities set up. If not, create them yourself.
Then invite all the people in each topic circle to join the community. Then delete the topic circles.
The idea is to replace topic-based circles with topic-based Communities, and keep all your circles people-focused.
Google+ Communities represents the most highly evolved public communications medium ever devised. The feature fixes what was broken about Google+, and makes Google's social network a supremely relevant and friendly place for everyone and anyone to talk about the things they care about.
If you're interested in some of the Communities I've created, including a few about mobile computing and technology, check them out here.
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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