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.)

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