Fresh off failure from its first social network attempt, Google decided it’d give the tech trend another shot and launched Google+, the company’s hope for rivaling networking leaders Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
I was lucky enough to be able to give Google+ a trial run and play around with the site before unlimited users are allowed in. Although I couldn’t get the full feel of the site since I wasn’t quite interacting with anyone yet — the whole point of a social network, or at least what our new technology-centric version of “interaction” is — I could still get a sense of what it would be like to be a full-fledged networker on Google+.
Around the Site
The overall layout is similar to that of Facebook. You have a profile where, like Facebook, you can include a photo, personal information including education and career history, and favorite quotes or a blurb about yourself. Like Facebook, you can be as selective or forthcoming as you’d like with your personal information.
After setting yourself up, it’s time to add your friends. Here’s where Google+ separates itself from other networks. Unlike Facebook, where a friend is a friend, on Google+ your contacts are separated into what it calls “Circles.” There are a few pre-set Circles you can use, such as Friends, Family and Acquaintances. It’s also easy to create new Circles, which I did with different work contacts. At the setup, Google+ will take contacts from your Gmail account, and it’s easy to click and drag people from different areas of your life to their respective circles.
This, to me, is the most compelling part of Google+ and a reason I would switch over, or use Google+ in addition to other networks. I’m an occasional Facebook user, but sometimes I have something interesting I’d like to share with a very select group of people, not my hundreds of Facebook friends, many of whom I don’t know well. In other cases, I might have something to share that I don’t want my dad or eight-year-old cousin to see.
That’s where Circles can come in. If I want to share something, or “Stream” in Google+ lingo, I can copy and paste a video, link, my location or a photo (easily uploaded from Android, if you’re an Android user), and dictate which group I want to be able to see this article. I posted an article from the New York Times on Hugo Chavez that I thought my friends would find interesting. For my work Circle, I might have posted a video on a new Mac product, or a picture of my sister and I to my family. Of course, if there’s something I feel like sharing with everyone, I could have done that, too.
It’s the most distinct way Google+ is differentiating itself, and it’s smart as privacy and oversharing issues are becoming bigger concerns. Social networkers have been warned countless times by members a little outside a younger, tech-savvy generation that one’s future employers, friends, older relatives, etc. don’t want to see embarrassing pictures, “likes,” or immature comments on Facebook or other networks. This is a great way to separate the personal and private without having to switch networks.
The Stream in which you post that content could then be compared to the News Feed section on Facebook, the first page that comes up when you sign on. Presumably when there are more users and members can create more Circles, the links and photos your friends or colleagues post would be available on the Stream. You can then use the “Plus 1” button (Google’s answer to the Facebook “Like” button) or comment on the item. If you’re signed into your Google account and open a new tab to search something in Google, an icon will pop up next to each search result where you can Plus 1 it as well. It could be compared to Liking something on Facebook.
Cool Features, but Cool Enough?
Another feature is called “Sparks,” which lets users list their interests from the general to the very specific, then share and discover news and information about those topics.
As easy as it is to get information, I’m not sure I would convert fully to Google+ to take advantage or Sparks, or even use it much if I were a Google+ user to begin with. I have an online routine set already, as I think many people do, and I have the sites I check daily along with a long list of bookmarks I check occasionally. For someone who is bored at the office and who doesn’t have a long list of favorite Web hotspots they’re routinely checking, this could be a good, easy way to get catered info. But for someone who goes to the Web knowing which columnist they’re going to read and which online magazine they’ll check out, Sparks won’t catch on.
Google+ is also introducing what it calls “Hangouts,” where video chats can go on between multiple Google+ users coming and going as they please. To me, this is less likely to catch on for a few reasons. One is that a reliable video network already exists with Skype, and if people are taking the effort to use video chat, they’re going to go with the account that’s already working for them.
I lived abroad for a while and so I know firsthand the joy in video chatting, but I also know it requires effort, especially when you’re trying to chat with multiple people or in different time zones. I also know you can’t do some other work at the office, watch TV or be reading other online content while video chatting, which most people do while in a normal Gchat or Facebook chat. Multiple video chatting means effort, and if social networking is one thing, it’s an effort-free way to keep tabs on people without having to do it face to face with an obligatory coffee date or taking time out of your schedule. Video chat is putting the work back into that, and I don’t think that it will appeal to the masses.
The last way I think Google+ might suffer in differences with Facebook and especially Twitter is its relativity outside Circles. From what I can tell — and this could change, depending on who joins Google+ — it would be difficult to follow a celebrity, public figure or corporation like you can on Twitter and, to some extent, Facebook. I and a lot of people I know use Facebook or Twitter primarily as a way to keep in touch not with personal contacts, but with a professional world or topics they’re interested in. Twitter feeds of politicians (scandals notwithstanding), journalists and executives have become an accepted medium of major announcements or quick reactions to news events, and it’s difficult to see how Google+ could play into that aspect of networking.
All in all, the network is promising, and although the likes of Facebook, Twitter and LinkinIn are undisputed leaders in a crowded market, Google+ has the potential to be a formidable opponent, especially with infrastructure like Gmail accounts and Android users in place. But it’s not spectacular enough to make me abandon Facebook or Twitter, and I’m doing OK connecting with friends and family via Gchat and e-mail. A few big players could help take this off the ground and really run with it, but Google’s mistaken if it thinks its network will sum up to a Facebook killer.