It wasn’t until the Facebook/Skype marriage that I remembered Google were tackling a new social service. Eventually I got into the system to give it a spin and I have to say I’m impressed. I’m not quite ready to ditch Facebook, or say that anybody should or will ditch Zuck & Co.’s popular if addled monster, but I am impressed. Apparently the fifth try is the charm.
To be sure, Google+ is still lacking one major feature: people. The trial period means that not every Snodgrass@gmail.com can sign up for an account. But bear in mind that when Facebook launched it also lacked people, almost pretentiously so, and people still used it. In Facebook’s early days anybody without an email address ending .edu and any school where Facebook “wasn’t yet available,” were sure out of luck until Zuckerberg opened things up. What Google lacks in population (though if it keeps up these growth rates, it could well have solved that problem soon) it more than makes up for in user experience by providing G+ users with a natural, easy, and safe way to connect with each other.
For the Google power user, G+ is a true winner because of it’s subtle but effective integration across all Google’s apps. Android users will also love the Google+ App available free in the Market which blows away both Twitter and Facebook’s respective apps. It’s best feature is clearly Instant Upload which posts images to G+ as you snap them. Instant uploads go into a private space where users may easily push them out to their circles.
The biggest advantage for the everyday user is Circles. It is important to consider what Google are actually doing with G+. They are not simply redoing Facebook.
G+ is a rethinking of the way our social relationships can be simulated or visualized on the Internet. Ironically, it’s the same idea that launched Facebook so many years ago.
Before Facebook there was the loud and creepy MySpace. Signing up for Facebook was refreshing. Everyone’s profile looked the same, save for the profile picture and responses to some standard details. Facebook was focused where MySpace was chaotic. Connect to friends and keep appraised of whatever parts of their personal life they want to share. As the site grew Zuck & Co. added more and more features, and eventually opened things up to the whole world.
What Facebook missed, however, was that people want to connect with their friends, but also people who aren’t really friends.
Eventually Facebook added a way to keep your friends in groups and set up a complicated system for deciding who gets to see what by default. But these groups are still groups of friends. An organization chart of Facebook would have a giant Friends box on the top, with arrows coming out of it pointing to groups; anything you share gets sent to your friends, and then filtered into the appropriate groups. Things get dicey here with eg. teacher-student and employer-employee relationships. It may be a good thing for students to be connected to teachers on Facebook, but are they really friends? It’d be great to connect with superiors at work, but are they really friends? G+ says no.
Everyone has social circles. Work circles, friend circles, school circles, bowling league circles, political circles, apolitical circles, ad infinitum. There is often overlap among these circles. In the G+ organization chart, there is no big box, but a series of Venn diagrams; when things are shared, they go directly to the appropriate circle, and nowhere else. When a user wants to connect with someone, they choose right away which circle they go into. This is how we think about the people we know in real life. In short, Facebook is a Rolodex, Google+ is a visualization of your scene.
G+ has the best privacy controls of any social application on the web today. Twitter is straightforward: everything you post is either shared with everyone, or only the people you allow; you’re either all in or not. Facebook is too complicated to summarize in one sentence without long-winded independent and parenthetical clauses (that’s a double-dog dare). G+ users decide on every post who gets to see it and who doesn’t. While setting a default (from public, like Twitter, to private, meaning just you, and everything in between) is possible, Google have made it incredibly easy to decide on the fly. And it isn’t hard to see the benefits. Circles allows users to be more like curators, or focused conversationalists rather than forcing them to be broadcasters. And it works both ways, users control whose posts they see by cycling through circles, so if someone in a user’s circles is being too noisy, there’s always the ability to create the “isolation chamber” circle.
The Wall Street Daily was right when they called Circles “Google’s answer to Facebook’s clumsy ‘groups’ feature.” Circles is seamless, natural and is at the foundation of Google+. It’s a great way to share. Some are starting to see some disadvantages with this kind of forced manual sorting, that the inherent segmentation may actually lead to less interesting online interactions, but in general Circles seems to be the best answer to the online privacy problem so far. If you want everyone and anyone to weigh in on a question, and if you want to see everything and anything shared with you, that is all still possible. But when you know there is something not everyone should see, G+ has your back.