How Communities can help Google+ with one of its key problems

I know, I know. Google+ (s GOOG) announced a shiny new feature called Communities Thursday, and all I am doing is open up old wounds. But I kind of have to, so here we go:

Remember that whole ghost town talk? Of course you do. The notion that Google+ isn’t really being used by anyone by Google employees has subsided a little bit ever since Google started to release some more meaningful numbers around the social network, with the latest being Thursday’s announcement that more than 500 million Google users have opted into Google+, and 135 million are actually engaging with posts in their stream.

But still, to this day, Google+ feels empty. That is the result of a key design decision. Google+ was meant to facilitate private sharing, which by the very nature of it happens under the surface. Go to my profile, for example, and you won’t find all that many public posts. But I’m actually using the service a lot to share photos and videos with friends and family. Unfortunately, not all of them are using the site yet – in large part because it feels empty to them.

Private sharing had become a double-edged sword for Google. It was a great feature to set the service apart from Facebook (s FB) – but it also made the service look incredibly boring when compared to Facebook. That’s why both active Google+ users as well as some of Google’s own employees have been trying to switch the conversation in recent months. Suddenly, Google+ wasn’t primarily about sharing with the people you know very well anymore, but about finding people you didn’t know, yet have a lot in common with.

And in select communities, that has been working very well. Photographers — in particular — have been embracing Google+ wholeheartedly, sharing their works, organizing hangouts to talk about the tools of the trade and embarking on photo walks all around the world. Google’s Ingress Alternate Reality Game has helped to build another strong and very passionate community on Google+.

But these communities have also been hampered by the design of the network. Google+ is based on asynchronous sharing: I can aggregate all my photography friends in one circle and post all my photo-related posts to that circle – but the posts still show up in everyone’s home stream, unless they put in me in the very same circle. And there’s a good chance some folks in my photo circle won’t just talk about photography, which then leads to people I follow for their photo expertise sharing restaurant reviews from a town I don’t live in with me.

Communities can solve all of that. They can help to foster communication between folks with a shared interest, but they won’t pollute your home stream. They can help to pull people in, which can then discover some of the other features of the service. In other words: They can help to turn some of Google+’s weaknesses into strengths – and in turn make it feel less like a ghost town.