According to the Silicon Valley rumor mill, Google Circles is a secret social networking project designed to bring control and clarity to what you're sharing and with whom. The idea would be that you would have multiple "Circles" -- call them "Immediate Family," "Extended Family," "Co-Workers," "Best Friends," "Old Friends" and so on. You could then designate everything you post according to which circle sees it.
Google denies the rumors, and says the company's strategy is to simply bake more social features into most existing Google products.
So we have before us two radically different possible approaches Google could employ to compete against Facebook and win in social networking.
One way to win is to launch Google Circles, and make it just like Facebook, minus the things people don't like about Facebook. The most important thing is to put users in control -- and make them feel in control -- of their own information.
The second way to win is to execute on the stated strategy, which is to make existing Google services increasingly social.
But the social network will be nothing more than a "view" of what each person is already sharing via their other Google services. Importantly, it will feel like a walled garden, a dedicated social network like Facebook.
If you want to understand this concept, consider "Google Dashboard.
When Google rolled out Dashboard a year and a half ago, the tech press emphasized the site as evidence that Google knows too much about you, because it listed all kinds of information about your use of Google services, including search histories. They missed the point.
What was really interesting about Google Dashboard is that it serves as a model for transparency. It revealed that you're already using more Google services than you think, sharing more content than you realize, and have far more connections between services that you might have guessed.
As Google continues to build new social features into all its offerings, users will end up with no idea who's seeing what. They'll feel confused and paranoid, and may want to switch to competing services that offer more visibility and control over sharing.
But that won't happen, because I believe Google will launch a Social Dashboard. Imagine a page where, after logging in, you were shown in one column everything you're sharing, and with whom. In a second column, imagine a feed of content others are sharing with you.
It's Fantasy Facebook -- how Facebook should look and feel: Clean, clear, transparent.
Now imagine small Facebook-like features, most especially the ability to hide things from your feed.
And finally, the piece de resistance: the site could have the ability to add status updates.
The new site would feel like an alternative to Facebook, a closed dedicated social networking site. In fact, it would simply be a "view" of all your social connections already established in far-flung Google services.
This Google Social Dashboard could be built almost entirely out of existing services. For example, it could optionally integrate Profiles, Contacts, Gmail, Buzz, Talk, Reader and other services.
It wouldn't duplicate those services, just integrate them. For example, if you changed a phone number in your Google Contacts, that number would also change in your Friends list on the Google Social Dashboard. If you "unfriended" someone in the Google Social Dashboard, you would automatically stop following them on Buzz and Reader.
I believe users are suffering from "social network fatigue." They just can't handle another dedicated social network to sign up for, and begin anew the process of building friends. Besides, Facebook is just too far ahead with user buy-in for Google to have a shot at starting from scratch.
When you look at your own Google Dashboard, you realize that you're much more committed to Google than Facebook already. Google may have your address book, sync with your smartphone, own your blog, maintain your calendar, know credit card information, and may even know your location (via Google Latitude) and much more.
If all this were bundled together into a social network, you would probably have more friends than Facebook, a longer history with those friends, a real address book actually useful for contacting people, calendar integration and the ability to buy things with one click.
In other words, if Google were to launch this Social Dashboard, it would be a Facebook killer par excellence, because you're already a member, and you've already been using it for a decade, you've already got hundreds or thousands of "friends" and have already entered your relevant personal information.
This bi-winning approach makes enormous sense. It supports Google's goal of transparency and openness. It satisfies public demand for clarity and control over sharing.
Best of all, it's optional. Users could make the Social Dashboard their home page, and live on it the way some people live on Facebook. Or they could choose to never visit the page, and just continue to share things at each Google site.
The reality is that people are already using Google social services. All we need now is just a clean, clear dashboard view of what we're already doing, and the ability to control it all.