Monday, 25 June 2012

The perfect blend? Pearson and the British Council team up for "Digital Transformation in the English Teaching World"

The Melià, Milan: great setting for a "cool" event
It was a blessed relief to step from the sweltering June heatwave engulfing Milan into the cool and spacious Melià Hotel last week, the setting for “Digital Transformation in the English Teaching World”, an event co-hosted by Pearson Longman and the British Council. Informative and inspiring speakers opened up the possibilities offered by integrating new technology with more conventional approaches to language teaching in a series of engaging presentations. The sizeable audience was made up mainly of teachers and other language professionals from universities, private language schools and the swelling ranks of freelance English teachers. (I was one of the very small minority of token men in the audience: ELT is obviously a woman’s world.)
Delegates at the Pearson / British Council event "Digital Transformation
 in the English Teaching World at the Melià Hotel, Milan, 20 June 2012

Joint effort
Co-hosts of "Digital Transformations
in the English Teaching World"
As you might expect from a conference co-hosted by Pearson, there was quite a large emphasis on the products and platforms they have developed, in particular the My EnglishLab learning management platform, as well as the materials Pearson has produced for this system. But there were also contributions from the British Council on how it is increasingly employing digital technology in the vast undertaking of providing testing and certification for the many thousands of candidates who take IELTS, Cambridge exams and other tests every year.

Digital literacy: what native digital speakers know
Nicky Hockly
Nicky Hockly, Director of Pedagogy at The Consultants-E, a Pearson Longman author and a renowned international teacher trainer talked about the importance of understanding digital literacies in today’s web-enabled learning environment: these literacies affect how we perceive, interpret, judge and use online content. With examples of how to use existing material from the web as a way of encouraging students to understand how material is presented, as well as the language itself, she also explored the use of video and even texting in the  classroom. (We were all intrigued by the case of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, which Nicky used to show how context can impact on credibility)

She introduced techniques such as subtitling video and using “literal videos” to engage learners (particularly younger ones). One of the themes of this conference was the wide gap that exists between teenagers who are “native digital speakers” and older people who have had to learn (rather than acquire) their web skills the hard way. Typically, it is the students who are more web-savvy – with teachers lagging behind (although there are exceptions). One of the benefits of this situation is that both teachers and students have knowledge they can both bring to the party and share – making the teacher-student relationship less “asymmetrical”.

Txt: the way we communicate is being transformed by technology

Using authentic video with English learners

Antonia Clare
Antonia Clare, one of the authors of Pearson’s Speakout series, presented “Effective learning from authentic video content”. A collaboration between Pearson and the BBC, Speakout enjoys the huge advantage of incorporating video and other material from BBC Worldwide and BBC Learning English. The coursebook content dovetails with the MyEnglishLab platform and provides some very impressive features, such as the ability to watch a video and access the complete transcript in a scrolling panel underneath. (Each sentence is highlighted as the language is spoken.) Antonia talked about using video as a springboard to encouraging students to talk about their own lives and experiences. Speakout (intermediate) includes voxpop conversations in the street with people from both Barcelona and London. She pointed out that students could make this kind of video themselves using readily-available consumer technology (flip cams or camera phones) and post it on a video-sharing site where it could be used as the basis of further language activities, such as subtitling (with the corrected text appearing at the bottom of the screen). Again, while this event was a showcase for Pearson’s platform, the speakers all provided examples of how (largely free) social media sites and services can be combined with professionally-produced classroom materials (books, DVDs – as well as the online content in systems such as MyEnglishLab). 

Blended learning – something of a buzzword currently, but not always understood or appreciated in practice – can therefore be seen as a way of bringing many different strands together: online content, material produced by students themselves as well as more conventional tests and exercises. While blended learning increases the opportunities it also brings new challenges, such as keeping activities focused on learning rather than the technology becoming an end in itself.

What's occurrin'? Antonia presents "Gavin and Stacey" from Speakout
One of the most well-received sections of Antonia’s presentation was the video from the award-winning BBC TV series, “Gavin and Stacey” (where Gavin’s first day at work is unintentionally sabotaged by a succession of well-meaning calls and visits by relatives and friends). The Pearson-BBC tie-up is obviously a huge coup in terms of bringing this type of genuinely entertaining and engaging material into the classroom in such a way that Intellectual Property (IP) rights are respected. The crossover between mainstream media and language teaching is something that Pearson in particular has exploited by means of the media giant’s existing holdings, such as the Financial Times (which provides the content backbone in the widely-used Market Leader series), as well as its Economist-branded Intelligent Business textbooks for language learning.

Technology to empower but not replace the teacher (MyEnglishLabs)
Chris Morris
Chris Morris, a Pearson international teacher trainer on new digital initiatives showcased MyEnglishLabs with the theme of “Informed teaching and personalised learning”. Chris flagged up further the divide between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” that was something of a leitmotif throughout this event. Despite the “brave new world” of digital technology and all the benefits it has to bring to the classroom some teachers are suspicious – if not downright terrified – of the impact it could have. Chris pointed out that technology will “empower not replace” the teacher: in fact, it can be liberating, by doing away with routine tasks such as endless marking and correcting of textbooks. In his presentation of MyEnglishLabs Chris showed how the platform can allow the teacher to assign online homework which students can complete at their own pace – and even on their mobile phone, if they download the app. Exercises can be selected for an individual student giving the teacher "fine-grained" control over their personal syllabus. MyEnglishLabs contains over twenty activity types, including various types of exercises (gap-fill, word search, etc), tests and comprehension practice linked to the course content. From the teacher’s perspective, perhaps the main benefit of this system is that it gives you an overview of all the material students have completed as well as their progress and scores. The teacher can “zero in” on those areas of a student’s language that require particular attention. This can also help in planning future courses by showing those areas where students in general are having difficulty (a point that also featured in the British Council section of "Digital Transformations" in the context of exams - technology is reducing the random element in ELT materials and activities, which can only be a good thing).

MyEnglishLab live and direct during Chris's presentation

MyEnglishLabs is an impressive platform that certainly reduces the drudgery of routine activities such as assigning and marking homework, testing and providing additional practice – and it’s always a joy to see someone demonstrate technology which they are genuinely enthusiastic and even passionate about. However, I personally have always been slightly underwhelmed by these systems when I have actually tried to base a complete course around them. MyEnglishLabs seems quite similar to English360 – the newly-independent course management system that features ELT material from Cambridge English (in particular). I suppose that both these systems and other similar products are of most use to large institutions where administration and the ability to monitor the performance of large numbers of students is critical (i.e. schools, colleges and universities). These “large customers” (who will inevitably produce the bulk of the revenues for providers of learning management systems, such as MyEnglishLab and others) work on a more industrial scale – and the automation at the heart of these management systems can produce not only savings in terms of teacher time, energy and even costs (especially as regards photocopying and printing), but also produce benefits for the students – not least by allowing a high level of individual customisation. With smaller schools, specialist training companies and freelancers, there is less need for this kind of “enterprise” technology.

The other key factor is that while these systems are often described as “intuitive” by developers and vendors, they can actually impose quite a large burden on the teacher who must add “system administrator” to their ever-lengthening list of roles. I haven’t really explored MyEnglishLabs in depth yet – but while the presentations were impressive, especially in terms of content – I would like to know more about the training and support that goes with the system. I often find that a “social” approach works best in these situations: an active online community is usually the best source of knowledge and support when you get stuck or are seeking inspiration.

Teachers can see progress through course material and grades at a glance on MyEnglishLabs

Going online: how the exam process is going digital (British Council)
Margaret Fowler talks about digital technology and the British Council
Margaret Fowler of the British Council spoke about the impact of computer technology on the exams that the BC administers and manages in Italy and worldwide. With many exams now available in either paper- or computer-based versions, students can choose which form to take. (Currently, only ESOL exams e.g., PET, BEC, FCE, CAE and KET are available in computer-based format. There is no computer-based version of IELTS yet.)

There are some slight differences. In the computer-based exam (and others), students use headphones for the listening section, for example. (Interestingly, while this can increase confidence when compared to listening to audio output from loudspeakers, it doesn’t actually affect grades.) The test takes less time as there is no need to transfer answers to another sheet for marking. Basic word-processing functions such as copy and paste and word count are also available for the writing section, although some candidates may find it uncomfortable to scroll through the reading passages.

Exam security has gone high-tech too. All candidates are photographed on the day of the test and the images are stored in a central database in the UK: these can be used to verify someone’s identity in the case of doubt about a "dodgy" certificate or someone's claim to be the awardee. Digital technology is also crucial to the development of exams run by the British Council: for example, the Cambridge Learner Corpus, a database of exam scripts (completed papers) that incorporates a treasure-trove of student errors, can be plundered to help exam writers understand which areas of the language students need to focus on. And any so-called “jagged profiles” or anomalies between language skills (e.g. an unusually low mark in a reading or listening paper for an otherwise strong candidate) will be immediately picked up by the analytical software used to crunch all the exam results.

The British Council’s exams service is increasingly in demand. There has been a 20% rise in the number of people taking CambridgeProficiency (CPE) - currently celebrating its 100th anniversary - this year. Margaret’s presentation included some striking images of the (truly) industrial process that underlies this success: warehouses stacked full of completed test papers and high-security printing, for example. With the increasing use of computer-based exams, however, these could eventually become a legacy of the “dead tree” age of information (and it would help the environment a bit, too).

The secret to a successful conference on digital technology: expert hosting 
Russell Lewis thanks Antonia Clare
The whole event was kept moving along at a brisk pace by the very capable Andy Barbiero and Russell Lewis of Pearson, who wove the various sections together with both wit and veuve. (I’d like to see more of these guys presenting Pearson’s materials: they’re obviously both great at winning professional audiences over with their enthusiasm, knowledge of the products and sensitivity to what classroom teachers need.) Both Pearson and the British Council had stalls well-stocked with books, brochures and leaflets covering a range of issues of interest to English teachers. Helpful and informative representatives from the two organisations were also on hand to field queries and provide details of new products and services. The event was a welcome opportunity for some useful networking in addition to the excellent presentations. (And, by the way, it was all free. Not bad!)

Andy Barbiero of Pearson in the hot seat during a simulation of a classroom activity 
So, following this brief introduction to how digital technology is transforming the English teaching world, it was back into the cauldron of the Milan heat (happily weighed down somewhat by a free copy of MyGrammarLab, which all the delegates received). But as I left the air-conditioned oasis of the Melià I certainly felt that I had gained a good insight into how Pearson and the British Council – among many other companies, organisations and individuals working in this field – are helping language teachers and students to benefit from the many advantages that technology can bring to our profession.

Pushing the right button(s): Longman Pearson's "MyGrammarLab" 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

CircleMe: Some suggestions for making the user experience of "the social network from Milan" more social

I recently wrote a review of CircleMe, the fast-growing “Made in Italy” social network where you can share your passions and interact with other people who like the same things as you. I have been thinking about how this experience could be deepened and enriched socially and in this article I discuss some of the key factors that need to be taken into account.

CircleMe is a social network for sharing the things you like
I like something; so do you – so what?

The first thing to consider is what is the significance of people liking things - and more importantly telling other people they like them? I suppose this is a basic, human thing that we do all the time. We show other people what we like – e.g. allegiance to a particular football team, the choice of brands we make (what we wear, the car we drive round in) as well as more subtle, less articulated passions and values – e.g. our desire to be taken seriously and to be considered interesting or cool. In fact, if you look at most of the decisions we make regarding the things we buy, use, etc – as well as where we live, the places we visit, the people we know – all of these are really “likes”: we are telling the world “this is me, these things are important to me” – and we tend to feel positive and generally well-disposed to people who share our likes and passions. (Conversely, we can feel quite negative towards those who have a completely different set of likes – and, hence, passions, values or even an opposing world-view.)

More than just a directory?

How is CircleMe different from a (good-looking) list or database?
Now, from the perspective of sites and services such as CircleMe, how does the data they accumulate help them to deliver a better experience? Assuming that CircleMe is not just a huge survey or questionnaire designed to garner information that is useful to marketers and brand-owners (which I’m sure it is, but there must be more to it than that), how does the relationship between what people like and the way they interact with each other through CircleMe become significant or achieve something meaningful enough for people to stick with the site and keep returning to it? (And how will it differentiate itself from other "recommendation" sites which offer a similar service?)

I believe the answer is: communities. By initially declaring what you like and finding other “like-minded” individuals, you start to develop a kind of footprint or to map out an area / territory that defines you (or the part of you that you want to show publicly). If enough people start to cluster or congregate around a particular topic, that topic will start to take on a life of its own. It may also draw in existing goodwill and energy (e.g. fans of a singer or film director who already belong to other sites and communities relating to that topic or “hero”). Eventually, the community establishes itself as a permanent presence on the web (perhaps clustered around certain sites or networks) – and, indeed, spilling out into the offline world as well. (I have noticed, by the way, that CircleMe has been using the word "community" in some of its likes – but perhaps this is more wishful thinking at present than an accurate description of what is happening. More on this topic coming up...)

The network is the message

Sharing interests can bring people together
These online communities are often associated with a particular social networking site or or other virtual location (e.g. forum, blog, etc). Groups dedicated to certain topics may favour one platform over another. MySpace, for example, tends to attract music fans, while Google+ has a large number of (mainly male) tech aficionados. Pinterest (which I touched on in my earlier article about CircleMe) attracts mainly female “pinners” who are particularly interested in fashion, interior design – and, of course, cupcakes. It isn’t exactly clear yet what the main focus is for people who CircleMe attracts: it’s still early days for this feisty all-Italian startup. Obviously, there is a bias towards leisure and entertainment. However, I have attempted to identify some trends which may point towards its eventual focus or “centre of gravity” (or "centre of levity", even).

As I said before, CircleMe is good-looking and offers an intensely pleasurable aesthetic experience. Its interface is a delight. (I have compared it to an expertly-produced – and up-market – glossy magazine - or perhaps just the Contents page in such a periodcal.) This analogy with high-end magazines could be significant. It is very much oriented towards cultural consumption: books, films, music, food and drink, etc. Looking at the mainly offline publications that tend to attract a devoted following (as opposed to casual passers-by who are probably looking for immediate gratification: clips, downloads, etc), it is clear that the people who buy music magazines, for example Q, Mojo, Rolling Stone, etc tend to be slightly older and to belong to a comparatively “higher” social demographic. If someone is interested in the background, discography and forthcoming gigs for a band, they are more likely a) to actually buy the music and b) have a greater stake in the band’s “social” context or community. This is also true for films (again – the analogy with magazines such as Empire or even the more serious Sight and Sound is telling: a person who identifies strongly enough with a particular director or performer to be active in the community surrounding that individual probably also goes to the cinema and buys DVDs / other (physical) formats, e.g. BluRay) – or actually spends money on downloading and streaming services. (In my last article I used the phrase “Facebook for grown ups”. I would refine that here, perhaps, to “Facebook for predominantly metropolitan, style-conscious grown ups who are still into old media and visit restaurants with friends” – i.e. a pretty significant group of people when it comes to spending their disposable income and influencing others.)

Consuming passions

Food and drink, goods, films, book and music: they're all social!
Looking at the trends on CircleMe, there is a definite tendency for people to like what may be termed “lifestyle” topics – food, places to visit, cultural events and phenomena, as well as media such as books, films and music. Another important group of likes is “Heroes” – people, many of whom, naturally, are artists, musicians and writers, etc – but also “celebrities” (a term which can be slightly pejorative or dismissive): perhaps the more neutral “famous people” is better – figures from public life, campaigners and “movers and shakers” of all kinds. (Interestingly, while these people may not associated with an obvious product to sell, such as a biography or tee-shirt, the fact that someone likes a topic that is not just an item to be consumed (e.g. Aung San Suu Kyi or Artificial Intelligence) is significant. This kind of “soft” or nebulous information fills in the gaps between a person’s consumption patterns across different product categories and their aspirations and ideals: it tells you about people’s values, what makes them tick – not just what they have already bought.)

Now, one of the things I really like about CircleMe is the way that when you add a topic it produces a neat-looking “card” on your wall. All of these cards together make an attractive collage or overview of your tastes. (This is definitely the main motivation behind Pinterest – and, to tell the truth, if you want to produce a “mood board” of images, Pinterest is what you need.) While this collection of likes within CircleMe is appealing, within an individual topic, however, the experience is less satisfactory. Comments can be added in a scrolling list to a topic page; there are areas to add stories (really just links) and you can see other people who like the same topic or have planted it on the map. To Do's are also visible, but these offer little extra info and are not easy to access. So, a topic quickly becomes little more than a list of comments and links. You can add a picture, but again, these are just in the form of a slideshow with thumbnails. One picture (generally the last one added) forms the main picture for the page. The overall feel within a topic page is that of a more-stylish Facebook wall or bulletin board with limited functionality.

My 7 "To Do's" for CircleMe

Ideas for making CircleMe more social
Now, I am not sure what CircleMe plans to develop as regards their site – and I am just floating some ideas here. (As I mentioned in my last piece about them, they have deployed Get Satisfaction, a social engagement platform, which has some interesting user feedback. The CircleMe team are also quite happy to respond to individual comments and suggestions you send them.) So, here are my suggestions for how they could improve the experience of their site for users and develop the communities concept further:
1.  Give users more tools to do stuff with the content in each page – e.g. it would be quite cool if you could add links to other likes within comments or tag individual comments. (Also, the ability to automatically generate a preview thumbnail and intro text when you add a link – as on Facebook and LinkedIn – would add value.)
2.  Layout and design: One of the main benefits of CircleMe is its aesthetic appeal and textured, tactile design that arranges pages automatically and generally tidies them up so that whenever you look at a page it doesn’t seem cluttered or crowded (on both the PC/Mac and mobile platforms). Extend this principle to individual topic pages by allowing users to add content – but silently manage the design that you (CircleMe) do so well. (In this regard, I have been looking at some automatic page and template generators that you can use to create “fake” newspaper stories or magazine layouts.) The key thing here is that the content and design can be separated: everyone could become a Condé Nast editor and immediately see their comments and pictures beautifully formatted on glossy, “handmade” pages. (Magazines actually use a lot of automated design features in terms of borders, dividers and placeholders for text.)
3.   Make it more social: allow collaborative editing of articles, but let the people who are contributing show what they have done. Don’t make the process invisible (as it is, at the moment, e.g. if you add a picture or edit tags (although these do show up in your Activity)). Give contributors a byline (and pic) - it doesn't have to be Wikipedia.
4.   Let people vote and decide on which content gets used. Add polls, sticky notes, etc. (These could be in a “design” panel or dashboard (complete with coffee stains and pencil marks – they already have Get Satisfaction on a fly-out menu button at the side which opens up the GS interface.) The key thing is that every time you hit "Refresh" you would see a beautiful,“print-ready” page or layout that incorporates all the material that has been added. (You could also print off hard copies of the lovely pages you have worked on - complete with crop marks and CMYK registration.)
5.   Allow users to publish the content from the topic page to their social media sites, profiles and blogs, etc. If a group of people decide to start curating the page on a topic, e.g. Bob Dylan, then give them (full) credit for their work. Make each page a mini-magazine and generate a kind of magazine-style credit list of contributors. Allow people to comment on the work and link back to their main CircleMe profile so you can see everything they like and the other content they have added. (Not everyone will be a designer – there will be writers, researchers, picture editors, fact-checkers, etc.)
6.   Be iconic! Compared to the usual experience of Facebook, forums of various kinds – and even the more “serious” collaborative content sites, such as Wikipedia – CircleMe could become known for being distinctive and design-conscious (which are important Italian values too!). Make it virtual Moleskin and Montblanc.
7.   Let CircleMe become “the glossy lifestyle magazine you can edit yourself” – Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone with a million guest editors, beautiful black and white photography (sign up professional photographers and picture libraries to showcase their work) and cutting-edge graphics you can load from a simple push-button template.

A few other ideas regarding the communities clustered around each like:
·       Allow communities to like other communities. Create a network of “cross-likes” and associations. (e.g. people who are into Deep Purple could hook up with lovers of classic motorbikes; bebop fans could reach out to readers of the Beats and Jack Kerouac). Make it easy to aggregate topics and curated content based on tags and categories – see in this regard, which allows users to create their own radio stations and listen to other user’s playlists.
·       Develop community activities in the real world as well as on CircleMe. E.g. if you know that a large number of people are into a topic in a particular location, use the site to direct people towards each other. (e.g. if there’s a film or festival that has been planted by users, let them save the map – include locations of restaurants or bars nearby – and add reviews from other likes. Allow people to print out or download the whole thing as a mini-programme, tailored to their individual style and tastes – and also to send / share this with others. Local vendors could include Groupon-style vouchers for discounts and there could even be a “print a flier or poster” option for someone organising an event to produce publicity material  perfect for a band or performance artist who want to connect with their local fan base. (This is significant as CircleMe differentiates itself from other similar sites by making planting” (or geo-tagging) central to its experience. At present, this feature of the site is under-exploited.)

I will be visiting over the next few weeks and months and I’ll be interested to see if they take up any of these ideas!

My vision of a "collaborative" article created by contributors within a community.
(I'm sure CircleMe's designers could do a better job and make it more "bello"!)

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Unsquaring the circle: a very different (and good looking) social network

CircleMe: a different kind of social network
I have been exploring CircleMe – a new type of social network that lets you build connections with other people based on shared likes and passions – rather than just who you already know.

There has been a flurry of start-up activity in the social networking sector recently – driven mainly by the flotations of LinkedIn and Facebook, the meteoric rise of Pinterest (and the less meteoric but still significant rise of Google+) as well as the high-profile acquisitions of Instagram by Facebook for $1bn and the imminent purchase of Meebo by Google. And this is without mentioning a vast swarm of smaller, optimistic start-ups – of which CircleMe is one.

I can’t quite remember how CircleMe came to my attention – but over the last few days it has gradually taken hold of me and I am experiencing the same kind of obsessive “I’ll just check and see what’s happening” sensation that I had when I first joined Facebook – and, to a certain extent, LinkedIn. Looking back now though, I’m sure the main motivation of this desire to log in and check on these networks was simply to see who out of the people I already knew had joined my network. It’s a kind of feedback of how popular you (really) are.

Appetising design and ease of use combine to give a great experience
But with CircleMe it’s quite a different feeling altogether. I am really curious to find out which of the topics or people I have “liked” have been shared – and also to see the expanding network of collections that other people have curated. (I’m trying not use the words “pin” or “board” – although, of course, CircleMe bears more than a passing resemblance to Pinterest.) It may be the case that because CircleMe is still a fledgling its early adopters tend to be quite interesting people with eclectic tastes (CircleMe was in beta and available only by invitation until the end of last year). Or it may be that their combination of luscious design and very easy interface attract people who are more design-oriented – and just generally into exploring culture that bit further.

Pinterest: too much of a good thing?
Without pursuing the comparison with Pinterest too much, I can say that after a very short time on the latter I was so overwhelmed by cupcakes and tastefully-appointed living rooms that I didn’t really bother exploring the rest of the site that much. Somehow, CircleMe has avoided cupcake hell (so far) but it is weighted towards what may be loosely termed “lifestyle”. I have to say that its trademark “tondi” (images cropped to a circle) make food (especially Italian food) look very appetising. With an emphasis on the positive and life-affirming, CircleMe shares some of the same warm glow of Pinterest, but doesn’t induce that sort of glazed-over numbness that I would get from flicking through endless glossy home and "gracious living" magazines.

Location, location, location: the iPhone app
CircleMe has introduced one innovation that really does set it apart from the main existing social networks: geo-tagging, or what it refers to as the ability to “plant” a topic at a specific, real-world location on a Google map. Of course, location-based social networking is not new – Foursquare in particular has established the concept of “checking in” at particular locations and there are a plethora of services that will show you the nearest bars and restaurants. The novel refinement that CircleMe has made is its mobile app which allows you to plant a topic (e.g. a song or poem) at a particular location.

I think they could do more with this: at the moment you can plant likes and receive alerts when you pass the location; but given the social network's appeal to stonger and deeper affiliations I believe the true value of connecting passion to place lies in developing the social links and local communities or tribes formed around those passions. For example, as a freelancer and road warrior (or "pavement partisan", to be more accurate), I spend a lot of time in several cafés and bars in the centre of Milan where I tend to network with other freelancers. Location is critical to our attachment to these "virtual offices" and it cannot be separated from our shared passion for not being chained to a desk. This is exactly the kind of floating, informal community that CircleMe needs to engage with. (I will have more to say about this in a later post.)

I am currently adding topics to my profile and focusing mainly on Milan (which, incidentally is where the CircleMe team is based). It’s quite a nice feeling to be able to plant topics on an “uncluttered” map – even though it also seems to be like colonizing a new territory (although certainly not to the extent of Foursquare’s struggles for virtual supremacy which allow you to become the mayor, king or emperor of a location). CircleMe allows a topic to be planted in multiple locations, which makes sense in terms of people and things which move about rather than buildings and places (which don't).

CircleMe feels like the online version of a quality illustrated book.
For me, the chief delight of the site is its design, which has a handmade, high-end feel – a bit like an expensive art book or catalogue (the background has a subtle rag paper texture and the buttons and panels have an almost tactile 3D quality, like digital card). The palettes and default fonts (I think you can tweak them) are a joy to behold. Now, I know that if you don’t live in Italy – or if you’re not into design – this might sound trivial and superficial; but if you spend time looking at a page (especially a digital one) the quality of its design and aesthetic appeal can be really important. It also helps you to absorb the information in front of you more easily. When I switch back to the starker environments of Facebook and LinkedIn it feels slightly like arriving at the metro station or going into the office. CircleMe, on the other hand, offers the kind of relaxing, enveloping comfort and style-conscious ambience of a private members club – it’s like slipping into your favourite worn (or artfully distressed) leather armchair with an expertly-mixed cocktail as you leaf through one of the first editions from its library.

If you haven’t tried CircleMe already, I suggest you give it a go. It’s not really a numbers game; you don’t feel the urge to rack up as many contacts as you can – or even to see if everyone you know is there (they aren’t). It seems much more of a slow-burn experience (or perhaps "organic" is more appropriate). The topics that you plant – or that other people have planted – will gradually grow and blossom. You can also comment and add pictures as well as “stories” to each topic.

I can definitely see CircleMe developing into a version of “Facebook for grown ups” or for people who (really) know what they like. Each topic could become a micro-community, based on a shared interest or passion. The content also tends to have a certain critical edge that is generally missing from the mainstream sites (although see my comment above about early adopters). I doubt CircleMe will surpass or even approach the huge numbers of (let’s be honest) mainly passive users that the “mature” networks enjoy. Instead, I think it will (or should) attract a select number of more active and discerning users (who are probably more engaged with the topics they share). Basically, they should go for quality not quantity (with just enough critical mass to drive the network effect, of course).

In terms of demographics, a more compact but loyal membership can still offer as much – if not greater value when it comes to whatever revenue-generating strategy they have devised. Consider the petite circulation of expensive, special interest glossies (Condé Nast Traveller, Q, etc). Although there is currently nothing as crass as advertising on the site, the people it attracts will undoubtedly be of particular interest to luxury brands and to those in specialist "long tail" markets. Given that the trend for marketing is increasingly social, it may be the case that CircleMe does not intend to turn itself into a digital version of Vanity Fair, but rather to act as a haven or place to hang out for communities built around their favourite topics (some of which will be brands, but others just communities of interest). Given the strong location-based element, there is ample scope for actual real-world activities – events, meet-ups, etc.

There are still some things they need to work on, however: for example, it isn't at all easy to create a new topic. Another is the "Stories" accompanying each topic, which offer little more than a line or two of text - these could be more visually appealing (without necessarily distracting from the main image for each like).

One cool thing that CircleMe have done is to set up a feedback channel using Get Satisfaction, a customer engagement platform with a nice social business feel. Again, given the fact that people are investing their time and energy in building their profiles and collections of topics, it’s good that CircleMe are involving them in the design and development process. (The CircleMe team are also very helpful if you need support or want to make a suggestion on how to improve what already looks like a very promising and different social networking experience.)