Google+ for Communities

I guess it is not really a secret that I enjoy Google+ quite a bit. At work I’m basically the only one still using it and also with regards to most of my friends and family I’m in an absolute minority. But that hasn’t really stopped me from searching new and interesting discussions involving people I don’t know yet.

And two days ago Google+ received an update that will make this even simpler: Google+ Communities. If you want to search for interesting discussions on services like Twitter, and Google+ you’ve been mostly limited to either spidering your way through your contacts’ contacts or tag pages since the whole network (as are its competitors) are mostly focused around people and not topics.

Topics in the spotlight

Google+ Communities kind of tries a different route with bridging classic forums with the way you share your thoughts or other content on your steam. The idea here is that people will create a community for virtually any topic (cooking, database administration, parenting, …) to which you can then post your thoughts in the known Google+-way.

These forums can either be public or private with the latter being only open to people you’ve explicitly invited. There is also an option to make private groups at least visible to that degree that they can ask for an invite.

You can create either a public or private community.

Each community can then for instance host a hangout or create events. It is also possible to create so called “categories” within a community. For instance, the mongoDB community has categories for every major language (Python, Java, Ruby, PHP, …) for people to post questions and discussions in. There is even one for helping other students taking part in 10gen’s Education courses (more than appreciated given the state of the forum software available as part of the courseware there).

Stream fragmentation

One downside of how groups work right now is that even if you post publicly on a group, this post won’t show up in your profile by default. Sadly, you can’t yet share a post right out of the box with your circles and a community:

Posting to a group *and* a circle isn't possible yet.

Once a post has been shared with a community you can also share it with your circles but it’s IMO an unnecessary split. But it also has one advantage, as Mike Elgan on Computerworld explains:

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!

And this is probably the best example ever! I really like posting what I had for dinner and where I had it for instance when traveling, but I’m pretty sure most of the folks who follow me on Twitter, don’t really care and it is pure noise to them. On the other hand, if I’m for instance in London, a travel-focused community might like people posting where they enjoyed a good Curry in England’s capital.

So in the end, this might mean that topic-focused circles might become obsolete with sharing with communities being the replacement. Personal streams could end up being more “personal” again which in turn could change Google+’s image of being something in the middle of Facebook and Twitter (content-wise).

For me personally, this new feature will do mostly one thing: connect me with people interested in the same topics as I am but that I haven’t known before from Twitter or other networks. Stream starvation is not really an issue for me since I will still share whatever interesting post I find in these communities (as long as they topics aren’t too niche).

Replacement for mailing lists

Last night Ian Bicking asked a rather interesting question:

I wonder if G+ communities could be a reasonable replacement for mailing lists for open source projects that are too small for a mailing list?

For me mailing lists have become a big annoyance over the years since they fill my inbox mostly with stuff I don’t care about but I’m still on them for the times I might have enough time to help out there or ask my own question. Because of that, for instance, the django-users mailing list ended up in a hidden label in my Gmail inbox for the better part of the last 2 years before I finally pulled the plug.

Communities due to their granularity and good integration with the notification system built into Google+ might be a nice alternative here. Sure, a lot of folks might complain that they now have to have a Google+ account but, honestly, at least in the tech-scene everyone has at least a Gmail account, so this should be a non-issue.

What’s missing?

But for this and other aspects to really work, Google still has a bit of work to do:

  • Communities are not yet integrated into the mobile apps
  • notification configurations can only be made on a community level and not for each category
  • sharing content with communities and circles has to become easier
  • more markup features (esp. relevant developers to share code snippets etc.)
  • polls

That said, for a first public release this already looks rather nice, but I’m still a little bit annoyed that Google tends to release features on one platform first and only slowly rolling it out to others (like mobile apps) even though they are all under their control.