So, the other day I got an invitation to “field test” Google+, the latest attempt for a social networking platform by Google and pretty widely thought of to be a direct Facebook competitor. Now, I wasn’t sure that between Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn that I really needed another platform for networking, but I’m a Gmail advocate, Chrome user, and Google Calendar dependent, so thought I’d give it a whirl.
And this wasn’t without a little bit of trepidation. I mean, I’d tried to make sense of GoogleWave and Buzz was unwieldly enough to drive me to Twitter, which was something I never thought I would have done a couple of years ago. So, I was interested to see if Google had learned any lessons from those earlier misfires. And after tooling around for a little bit, I think they have.
First off, the interface is very clean, which is good. It’s a little Facebook-esque, but has all the tabs and links for your other Google-based applications: Gmail, Reader, Picasa, etc which is great. It also incorporates a Gchat module on the sidebar. Nice. The FB News Feed is replaced with Stream and you receive notifications (customizable) when a post that you’ve participated in — either as author or commenter — has been updated. Actually, one of the features that I like best is that you can reply to notifications within Google “bar”, whether you’re in Gmail, Reader, Docs, etc.
One addition is Sparks which is supposed to be a web-content feed, which I think is a different way to say “tag-searcher”. I tried it out with two of my favorite things (“cocktail” and “english pointer”) and got a couple of web-hits, but nothing too enlightening. It will be interesting to see if/how Sparks evolves, though maybe I’m just thinking about it in the wrong way.
Another thing that’s been added was a multi-person video conferencing via webcams called Hangout. I think it was interesting that this was announced simultaneously with FB announcing a Skype-integration package. I’m sure Google didn’t mind taking some of the shine off that announcement. Now, I don’t know about you, but you know why I love my computer and my phone? Because I hardly ever talk to anyone when using them. I have a few die-hard friends and family that like to talk — but me? I’m an emailer, a texter, a commenter, a blogger. I’m the guy that arranges lunch in the message center of an online scrabble game — so the idea of group video chat is so not what I’m interested in, but go for it if it’s your thing.
Of course, one of the big changes is Circles — a mechanism by which you can share information with subsets of your linked friends. Now I know FB has groups and lists and things, but they’re pretty clunky and I don’t know anyone that uses them. A lot of folks I know are sentimental to the “good old days” of blogging on Vox — where you had tiered levels of access (Family, Friends, Neighborhood) and Circles offers a similar sort of content control. It probably means more active management of your G+ friend matrix, but I think once it gets set up, it’s really not going to be that bad. Speaking of circles, if you want me in yours, there’s a link on the right to my G+ page.
Lastly, I want to mention what I think is probably the most appealing feature of Google+ and what I think has so many people excited and it has nothing to do with interfaces or integration. It’s actually pretty simple: it’s not Facebook. There are a lot of people that really seem to distrust FB because of it’s constantly shifting privacy policies and it’s willingness to sell its data. I think these folks see competition from Google (Motto: Don’t Be Evil) as something to cheer.
Now I don’t think it’s quite that black and white. The best thing that I ever read about social networking sites was: if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. And that will be true with G+ too. Google will certainly be crunching your posts, your +1s, and all the rest so that it can target advertising (hopefully tasteful little text advertising) to we consumers.
I know it’s all shiny and new and in beta-testing mode right now, but I’ve enjoyed setting this up over the last couple of days and already the early adopters — mostly old vox people! — feel like their moving in. I know it was the first thing I checked this morning. Then I remembered Twitter. And after a while, I went over and played my Scrabble turns on Facebook.