Yes, this week you get me on Monday and Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday/Thursday. It’s confusing me, too; I am a creature of habit. However, I want to tell you all about Google+, and I want to tell you about it right now. Because I’m also a creature of impatience.
I’m on the white list for the first users who get to try out Google+, or Google Plus, which is Google’s new social offering. Disclaimer first: my husband is the equivalent of the chief architect for this project, so in no way can I claim to be unbiased. On the other hand, I also really care about social media and tend to have strong opinions about it, so I imagine those will come through regardless. We shall see.
So what is Google+? Besides its poor branding, that is (a + followed by punctuation just doesn’t look right to me). Basically it is a suite of social features. In some ways it is like Facebook; in others, more like Twitter, and then it has features that are all its own. And it’s a work in progress, so it’s quite possible (even very likely) that we’ll be treated to cool new features in the future. It has a feed like Facebook (although it’s called a stream) where you can share status updates, photos, links, etc. It has group video chat (more about that in a bit). It has Sparks, which is a kind of recommendation engine for interesting new content on the web-based on your interests. It has some cell phone features that I won’t be talking about much because I don’t have a smart phone (but they include a group chat function that is basically like a text message except faster and free, and the option to automatically upload photos from your phone to a private folder in your account). You can see some screen shots here.
As of right now, I see two main downsides to Google+. One is the way its stream works. Of course, I don’t know anybody on Google+ right now, so I’m just following a few random people for experimentation purposes. But right now, the stream is not sorted with the most recent post on top. Instead, whenever a status is commented upon, it moves up to the top of your stream. This feature already drives me crazy, and I’m only following three people. Imagine how much worse it could be if I was following the 350 friends I have on Facebook and kept on having the same status messages repeated again and again as people I don’t even know comment. Yeah, not so good. I don’t like it when Facebook tries to mess with my feed with its “Top News” and I don’t like Google messing around with my stream either. I have hopes that they will add an option to change the sorting if you don’t want to deal with this sort of stream spam.
The other main downside is that I don’t know anybody on Google+, which means there’s not really much to do. Once I am given invites to send out, this aspect should improve, but it begs the question: how many of the people I interact with over Facebook or Twitter will join Google+ and be active over there? The services are not compatible in that you cannot port your status messages from Facebook over to Google+ (although to be honest, I hate it when people do that with their Twitter statuses anyway), so it’s a whole new social media platform to deal with. Will enough of my friends want to use both Facebook and Google+, or want to switch over to Google+, that it will be an easy way for me to interact with them? Will this mean I have to spend more time on social media applications (yikes!) or will a balance naturally emerge? (Here is one interesting theory on how the two social media platforms can be used differently.) Only time will tell.
1. Circles: The way you organize your contacts is pretty spiffy. This is the main way right now that Google+ combines Facebook and Twitter…and improves on both. In my experience, Facebook is mostly a walled garden in which you share all of your content with all your friends and no one else, whereas Twitter is a mostly public place where anyone can follow you and read any of your tweets. Google+ allows you to very easily set up multiple modes of interaction instead of having to choose one. (Yes, I know Facebook has group things or something, but I’ve never been able to get them to work, whereas I figured out Google+ in under five minutes.) I am able to follow anyone I want, and don’t need to get a friend request approved. However, I am under no under obligation to follow anyone back. And if I do wish to follow someone back, I can click and drag them into various “circles,” which are absurdly easy to set up. For instance, I can have a circle for close local friends so I can easily check and see who’s free to have dinner with me tonight. And I can have a circle for my family, or my college friends, or whatever I want (the names of the circles are private, too). This is great for writers because we will no longer have to wonder how to use Facebook: do we friend fans, or direct them to our Fan Page? Instead, we can just broadcast certain messages publicly, in which case all our followers will see them, OR we can create a circle for our fans, while still being able to be more personal with our real-life friends. Also, I’ve already created a circle called “Writers” so that if I want to talk craft (or the next big convention), I can show those conversations only to the people who care. (Note that Circles neatly sidesteps most of the drama inherent in Facebook; no more awkward friend requests that you have to ignore, or sudden realizations that someone has de-friended you. Less drama leads to less stress, which makes me happy.)
2. Hang Outs: Hang outs are video chat rooms that can hold up to ten people at one time. They are easy to open, and they notify whoever you specify that you’re available right now to chat (but you can filter this by circle, thereby avoiding the need to chat with anyone you’d rather avoid). I’m really excited by this feature since so many of my friends aren’t local; it sounds like it could be ideal for hanging out with them in a more casual way. Hang outs will also be great for critique groups who aren’t geographically close to one another, and for conducting plot breaks, brainstorming sessions, etc. I’m really hoping to have some Taos Toolbox alumni hang outs once general invitations are available.
3. No text limit in the status update box: Yeah, I know some people love the 140 character limit on Twitter (or the slightly longer one on Facebook), but I’m not one of them. Google+ doesn’t limit you, so if you have a longer idea, you can express it all in one place. I don’t know how often I will actually need this, but it’s one less thing to worry about.
4. Sparks: Sparks, the web content recommendation engine, lets you search for the newest content for your interests, so it’s already fun. But honestly, Sparks is in its infancy. I’m not allowed to tell you more, which sucks, but I’m allowed to say that someday it’s going to be a lot more awesome. I can’t wait.
5. Choice is good: In the past I’ve gotten kind of creeped out by Facebook and some of its policies (notably related to privacy). However, there has been no real alternative; either I can live with it or I can not have my social media toy. I know that Google has had its issues in the past as well (Buzz, anyone?), but choice and competition are generally good things for us, the consumers. And here comes my bias full force, but it has been my impression that Google is generally one of the strongest companies technically, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they are able to do. It is my hope (and my understanding) that the Google+ I’m seeing right now is just the beginning, and that there will be many more features and innovations in the future.
Any questions about my user experience with Google+? Any thoughts about Google+ in general? Let me know!
ETA: It looks like there’s already an extension for Chrome available that will allow you to cross-post your Google+ posts to Facebook and Twitter. Don’t think there’s any way to do it the other way around…yet!