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The mystery of Public and Incoming at Google Circles: An Explainer (unless I’m getting it wrong)

I thought I understood Google Circles until I tried explaining it to someone. So, let me see if I have this straight.And if I do, then I have a suggestion for Google Plus: Instead of saying that we post to “Public,” tell us we’re posting “To Followers.” And instead of letting us look at our “Incoming” stream, tell us we’re looking at “From Followers.”

Let’s say I have two circles: Friends and Coworkers. Into Friends I put Fred, Fanny, and Felicia. Into Coworkers I put Carol, Carl, and Cathy.

I now post something to Friends. Assume all members of my Friends circle have put me in one of their own circles. My Friends now see my posts whenever they check the stream from the circle they’ve put me into.

Now, it turns out that my coworker Carol hates my guts and hates hearing from me, so she hasn’t put me in any of her circles. Does she see my posts to my Coworkers circle anyway? If not, then either (a) I have the illusory sense that I’m posting to her when I post to my Coworkers circle, or (b) Carol is seeing my posts even though she does not want me in any of her circles.

Google Plus solves this dilemma through the Incoming stream and the Public circle. By putting Carol into one of my circles, two things happen:

(1) When I check my Coworker stream, I now see what Carol posts to Public. Since Carol doesn’t have me in any of her circles, she doesn’t want me to see what she posts exclusively to those circles. But, if Carol posts to Public, it is visible to anyone who has encircled her…even people like me whom she hates. If Carol didn’t want me to see it, she shouldn’t have posted it to Public. (Think of posting to Public as posting “To Followers.”) [Note about an hour later: Thanks to useful discussion of this post over at G+, I realize I should have added that posting to Public means also that your post has a publicly accessible URL.]

(2) My posts now show up in Carol’s Incoming stream. That stream shows all posts from people who have encircled Carol. If she doesn’t want to see my posts in her Incoming stream, she can mute me. (Think of Incoming as “From Followers.”)

The asymmetry of Circles is their genius, but, just as with Twitter, they lead our mortal brains astray. We think that because we’re posting to a circle, everyone in that circle will receive our post. Not exactly. If they have encircled me, it will show up within that circle’s stream. If they have not encircled me, it will be visible to them in their Incoming stream.

So, if you are an Internet Celebrity who has been encircled by 100,000 people, but who has encircled only ten close friends, your posts to your circle of ten will be visible only to those ten. (If they haven’t encircled you, your posts will show up in their Incoming stream.) If you post to Public, all 100,000 people will see your post within whatever circle they’ve placed you in.

I understand this as I write it. But, wait a second…yeah, it’s gone. :(

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