in Ramblings, Tech

Step into the social circle

I was googling around for something work-related this afternoon, and noticed some results it was finding on Flickr. After a quick double take, I realized it was finding a few photos from my Flickr contacts. Weird coincidence, right? That was my first thought. Then I looked closer, and noticed that Google is running a new beta feature called ‘social circle’:

(OK, maybe it’s not so new – the Google Blog mentioned the feature’s launch last October. But it’s new to me!)

Essentially, Google knows who my friends are and now searches each friend’s personal web of content. The idea, I guess, is that results from my friends will be more relevant.

But then I thought to myself “Hey self, Google doesn’t own Flickr, Yahoo does! How do they know who my Flickr contacts are?”

After poking around, as best I can figure out their data mining goes something like this:

1. I have a google profile page (

2. On that page, I have a link to my twitter account.

3. Google pulls in my twitter contact list, presumably via the Twitter API.

4. Google checks to see if any if anybody else with a google profile page listed a twitter account that matches someone I follow on twitter.

5. If it finds a match, Google takes a closer look at the matched person’s Google Profile page. Other sources from that person’s profile are added to my social circle search results. If they happened to list a Flickr account, photos from it show up in my search results whether or not I’m actually connected with them on Flickr.

At first I found this vaguely creepy, complete with brief paranoid visions of Google’s slimy tentacles reaching out across the web. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. Every bit of this data comes from a source that the creator specifically allowed to be public. It might be an order of thought removed from what most people consider when posting a link, but I think it’s still kosher. A conscious decision to make this info public was necessary. And I love seeing what simple things like APIs and RSS feeds can mash together.

Most importantly being able to search my social stuff like that in one place is extremely handy. More and more I find myself searching my own twitter contacts’ streams or my flickr contacts’ photos for things I need and opinions I trust or that one link I know I saw somewhere weeks ago and now want to go back to. By adding these search results to my standard daily googling, I get the same high utility from those results even if I wouldn’t have thought to search my social stream directly.

Every so often it hits me all over again: We live in a pretty amazing world. In a lot of ways, the internet still seems like magic to me.