Friday, July 08, 2011

Google+: Impressions So Far

I was able to get an invitation to join Google's new social network, Google+, a few days ago, and I thought I would give my initial impressions.

First of all, it's a social network, which means that you can post content which others you specify can see, and you can see others' content that they have allowed you to see.  In that way it is much like Facebook.  I think you all get the idea, so I'm going to focus on what's different and new.

Google+ Android app
The first thing you'll notice when you sign up is that instead of simply "Friends", Google wants you to categorize your contacts into "Circles", which are sets of contacts.  The purpose of this is so that you can easily share different things with "Family" than "Work"; "Acquaintances" than "Friends" (your real friends), and of course you can create as many custom circles as you wish.

Of course, Facebook has Friends Lists which lets you do the exact same thing, but not many people use them, and almost no one picks and chooses which Friends Lists to share things with on Facebook, whereas the idea is that with Google+, that will be the norm.

I think the most compelling features of Google+ are as follows:
  • Hangouts - You can flip on your webcam and start a Hangout, which you can invite your circles to or post to your profile.  Others who see you're hanging out can join you, and what results is a very easy multi-way video chat.  When someone starts talking, the big video switches to them. 
  • Automatic mobile photo/video upload - People like to take pictures and videos on their phone, and it can be quite a hassle to get those photos and videos off.  You can either plug your phone in to your computer, or you can manually select pictures and videos for upload using an app.  Google+ offers set-it-and-forget-it convenience:  with the Google+ app, you have the option to have everything automatically uploaded to your own private space, from which you can easily share selected photos and videos.  You can select whether to upload over the network, only over WiFi, or only over WiFi while charging, so it doesn't eat up your data plan or drain your battery if you don't want it to.  The online backup feature alone is worth installing the app, even if you never share anything, but once it's already online, why not use it?
  • It's Google - and therefore very conveniently integrated with all of your Google sites, like Gmail, Google Reader, Picasa, and Google Calendar.  Those of us who use these services will see a notification counter and "share" button in the top right hand corner of the page.  It will just be "there" for us to use.
I find it interesting that, at least as yet, there is no way to publicly post a message to another person.  On Facebook, this would be like posting to someone's wall.  On Twitter, it would be @ mentions and replies.  This makes it significantly less social in my opinion:  basically everyone is simply publishing things and sharing and commenting on things that others publish.  You can publish all you want, but no one interacts with your posts unless they follow you.  Even when you mention someone else, only that person gets a notification, not their friends.  The only serendipity is in comments.

I predict that this will make Google+ much less of a content generation space than Facebook.  People will tend more to import their existing streams of content to Google+, rather than using Google+ to initiate the conversation.

I could be wrong.  I hope so.  Then again, I personally almost never post on other people's Facebook walls.  All of my content on Facebook originates on other services, such as Twitter, Gowalla, Posterous, and Blogger.  This makes it easy for me to check a box on those services and send the content to Google+ as well as Facebook, and thus Facebook is not the exclusive holder of my content (this is by design).  But I wonder what the designers of Google+ are intending to do by not implementing such a seemingly basic feature.

They may not have been able to come up with a way to make it work with circles.  After all, if all of your content gets published only to the circles that you pick each time, how can you trust your contacts to pick the appropriate circles with which to share their posts to your profile?  (On the other hand, anyone who can see a post can republish it to anyone else, unless sharing is disabled.)

I don't think Google+ will die or be as obscure as Orkut (or as hated as Buzz), but I also don't think it will become as popular a place to spend time and interact with all of your friends as Facebook.  Google+ is a great personal publishing platform, and it has some useful tools for connecting with friends and colleagues, but it is definitely not a Facebook clone, nor, I fear, a Facebook killer.