A few thoughts about Google+

I am pretty optimistic about Google+. I felt similarly about FriendFeed and Google Buzz and yet users did not embrace these two services on the scale I was hoping for so I am being a little more cautious with my Google+ expectations. Before I get into some thoughts about Google+, I just want to mention that this post is not a guide to Google+ (Ben Parr at Mashable just published a terrific guide which you should take a look at) and it is not a Google+ review (there are a number of terrific reviews and posts in my recent post criticizing TechCentral’s review). This post is my attempt to explain why I think Google+ is significant and why you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it.

Googleplus iconWhen I think about Google+ I think about it as being somewhere between Twitter and Facebook and, at the same time, being a potential replacement for both. That sounds like a lot of the hype you may have heard but it is true. Whether enough people agree and move across to make it enough of a threat to Facebook and Twitter is another matter entirely. Given how users have tended to respond to Facebook and Twitter alternatives in the past, I doubt that will happen anytime soon. That said, Google+ has an excited, talented and engaged team behind it. That has gone down really well with users who are even more passionate about the product. Robert Scoble just published a post on Google+ which is telling:

I just spent an hour talking with a Google exec about + and I came away with a few things:

1. Google employees used to not be able to tell you what they are working on. Those days are gone.

2. There is more intellectual curiosity inside Google than I have seen in quite some time.

3. The + team is driven by our excitement and that has caused sizable shifts in employee attention. Translation new features are coming. Everyone wants to work for a winner.

This new Google attitude is something that feeds on itself. Translation I am excited about the future here in a way that I was never excited about Buzz.

Moving along. Circles is, to me, the brilliant engine that distinguishes Google+ from Twitter and Facebook (yes, Facebook lists can be configured to work similarly but they are buried and no-one really uses them). Circles are a brilliant way to allow users to share everything on Google+ with the comfort that what they share will only be seen by its intended audience, whether that audience be a group or groups of people or individuals (or both). The challenge with Facebook and Twitter, as I see it, is that users are forced to be more circumspect about what they share on those services because of their publicity settings.

On Twitter, your stream is either public or it is closed. Most are public and you have a mixed group of followers which may include friends, family, colleagues and strangers. If you are at all concerned about restricting access to some of your content to certain groups, you will probably be less inclined to share freely.

On Facebook it is a similar scenario although you have more control over whether you share with friends, friends of friends, everyone or based on a list. Facebook has said that very few people use lists so it comes down to who you friend and who you don’t. If you only friends real friends and family then sharing personal stuff is less of a concern but if you occasionally friend people who are not friends but may be clients, colleagues or someone you just can’t say no to then your sharing choices become constrained. Then there is also that question of whether what you want to share is appropriate for Facebook. Business related stuff may not be so you head to LinkedIn which is decidedly not for personal stuff.

Google+ cuts right through all of that with Circles because it gives you the ability to clearly differentiate groups based on your criteria and to limit sharing to those Circles. Sharing on Google+ is potentially very granular and this is, ironically, something which seems to be putting people off. Depending on how you set up your Circles, it can be complicated but that is entirely in your hands. Google+’s defaults are Family, Friends, Acquaintances and Following. You can simplify that further or add more Circles. I have quite a few more than that because I see Circles as a combination of Twitter lists and contextual groups for sharing.

Google+ post with share options

When it comes to who sees what, if you add a person to a Circle and he or she does likewise, then that is analogous to a Facebook friend. You can see each other’s posts which are published to the respective Circles. You can see everything that person publishes and vice versa because what you can see is still limited by the Circle/s you are in. Likewise with that person. The exception is where you or that person publishes something to “Public” which everyone can see.

If you add someone to your Circles or someone adds you to his or her Circles and its not reciprocal then that is like a Twitter follow. Someone who adds me, and where I don’t add that person, will be able to see my Public posts and I will be able to see that person’s Public posts in an “Incoming” stream which is wholly distinct from my Circles or aggregated Stream which includes all Circles.

Depending on how you share, Google+ takes on different roles. Mike Elgan published a great perspective on this a little while ago:

Here’s what I love about Google+ in general and the Google+ Diet in particular:

Instead of saying, “I’m going to write a blog post now,” or “I’m going to send an e-mail” or “I think I’ll tweet something” you simply say what you have to say, then decide who you’re going to say it to.

If you address it to “Public,” it’s a blog post.

If you address it to “Your Circles” it’s a tweet.

If you address it to your “My Customers” Circle it’s a business newsletter.

If you address it to a single person, it can be a letter to your mother.

I’d say this is pretty revolutionary.

I agree with him and this perspective on Google+ is pretty unique given the tools available which tend to favour some of these roles and not others. New users tend to be a little mystified as to why they should consider Google+. They sometimes point to Twitter’s simplicity or how it appears to be a stripped down Facebook wannabe but they are missing the point.

When it comes to Twitter, loyalists tend to talk about how simple Twitter is and about conversations on Twitter. What they ignore is that Twitter isn’t so simple anymore. The Twitter we use today isn’t the Twitter we started using a couple years ago. Back then, Twitter was primarily a way to publish 140 character tweets. @-mentions and hashtags were user creations to address Twitter’s inadequacies as a conversational and topic tracking tool. Twitter adopted these conventions and bolted on a sort of conversation thread tracking option and a cou
ple failed search options. We use Twitter for conversations but its a lot like talking to each other over other conversations in a crowd, using technical language and jargon (hashtags, for the most part). Over time, Twitter has morphed into a poor FriendFeed/Facebook/Buzz mimic hiding underneath the apparent simplicity of its original design.

Facebook has been classified as a personal social network which you use to share with friends and family. I published a post a little while ago about how a Facebook Page may be more effective than Twitter and my musings were greeted with more than a little skepticism. Facebook is not for everyone, its for those close to us. It is also a tool for sharing content, not necessarily for engaging in conversations.

What I have noticed on Google+ (actually, can’t help but notice) is that the level on engagement is pretty high. Conversations are constantly loading and updating as new ones are posted and existing ones receive more comments. Creating a post is a little more complex than publishing a tweet because you have a lot more space for your post, the option of adding a location, link, video or image attachment and you need to select the post’s publicity level. That said, Google+ dispenses with this 140 character constraint which some regard as a feature, not a bug, and conversations around posts take place in threaded comments, not haphazardly across the network.

GoogleplusoneiconDespite all this, Google+ is not a finished product. It is both part of a much larger Google overhaul and it is still in a limited field test and being tested daily for bugs and issues. It also lacks a number of features users have been asking for. It only works for people with Gmail accounts (Google Apps accounts should be supported at some point in the near future). There is no search function to search Google+ quotes or your +1’s (Google+ equivalents of Facebook Likes) and those +1’s don’t seem to do anything outside the context of a specific post. Google+ is a work in progress but as works in progress go, this is a pretty good one and it has, justifiably, received quite a bit of positive feedback and press.

Will Google+ replace Facebook and Twitter? Probably not. At least not anytime soon. The primary reason for this is that we are herd animals online and the herds are on Facebook and Twitter. We don’t really care that the Google+ meadow has a brook, greener grass and indoor plumbing. We know fewer people there and all the activity is in the other pastures. That said, if the right people are on Google+ then it will become (and has become) a Facebook/Twitter replacement. Its like apps for smartphones. It doesn’t matter how many apps the store has. What matters is that the key half dozen apps we rely on are in the store. Google+ also seems to be the place where some really interesting conversations are taking place between a few really interesting people. I agree with Scoble: Google+ doesn’t need to be the service everyone migrates to. Google+ also has the benefit of forming part of a much larger ecosystem which many of us use daily. That ecosystem is changing too and that is a big deal.

If you are coming from Twitter and Facebook, Google+ may not be all that appealing to you. It may be because you are missing what makes Google+ so interesting or because your contacts and friends won’t be moving across so there is no incentive for you to either. That’s ok. Just bear in mind that there is something really dynamic and powerful happening there and you’re just not part of it.







What do you think?

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