It’s been about two weeks since Google unleashed its latest effort to “get” social networking and I must say that I’m very impressed. After such huge duds like Orkut, Buzz, and Wave, I was beginning to think that The Big G didn’t quite understand how to do the whole collaboration and sharing thing. Google+, however, seems to really understand how to make the tools we want and correct some of Facebook’s larger shortcomings. I’ll warn you now that this is going to be part review, part tutorial and will get really lengthy.
Circle Your Wagons
The central part of Google+ is Circles, a concept very similar to Aspects on Diaspora. The idea is that for each person you want to follow, you place them in one or more categories (Friends, Family, Work, College Buddies, etc.). You can then use these groups to determine who you want to share each post with. (Don’t worry; you can pick a default setting.) There are also options to share with specific individuals, all of the people you’ve added to Circles, all of the people in your Circles AND your friends’ Circles, or (if you’re really an exhibitionist), publicly with anyone on the Internet. This gives you some rather precise privacy control and allows you to create circles of people who you don’t really want to read daily, but you still want to check in on from time to time. You can also use a circle to make sure that content that may not be interesting to all of your circles only shows up to the people you know will want to read it. Best of all, people you place in a Circle know that they are in one of your Circles, but they have no idea which one.
Can Facebook and Twitter do anything comparable? Sort of. Twitter allows you to create lists, but they are only for reading. As far as privacy goes, you can either publish to the whole wide world or just to people you whitelist. There are no granular controls for who can or cannot see a specific post. Facebook also makes use of lists, but they’re about as clunky as Twitter, usable just for filtering the incoming firehose. While you can customize a post to only be visible to or hidden from specific people, you can’t use a list to do it. This makes custom posting a frustrating exercise requiring a lot more effort each time you do it.
The short of it is that Twitter and Facebook make their lists feel like tacked-on half-hearted afterthoughts. Circles by comparison are much more elegant and easy to use.
Just because Google+ makes extensive use of Circles doesn’t mean that everyone has to be in one. Putting someone in a Circle is a lot like following on Twitter rather than the forced reciprocation of being “friends” on Facebook. If someone adds you to a circle, you are under no obligation to add them back. (There are a lot of people who have added me that I wouldn’t know from Adam’s cat.) Those people would only see your posts if they are public or shared with “Extended Circles” (aka your connections’ Circles) and you have a mutual connection. I’ve been putting some of my stuff into Public or Extended Circles to give them a chance to interact with me and make the Circle cut. In this way, it’s kind of Twitter-like in that you can discover new people you want to associate with.
So how else do you evaluate these pseudo-cyberstalkers? Google+ creates a special Incoming category for them. This lets you browse through the people who have you in a Circle but aren’t in any of your Circles. It’s kind of a nice “try before you buy” system to see if the person following you makes content worth reading. If you find yourself bored, it may also give you some more content to browse.
Nobody does group video chat. Heck, most of us don’t even do one-on-one video chat. Why? It’s inconvenient! You don’t call people on the phone just because anymore because you don’t want to interrupt them without some purpose for calling. Well, video chat like Skype is kind of the same way. You have to see if the person is online, then make the call and hope they’re available. Otherwise, you basically have to schedule the darn thing. It’s too much hassle.
Hangouts attempt to solve this little problem. The idea is simple: when you’re available to video chat, just start a hangout with one or all of your Circles (or, again, the Public or Extended Circles) and up to 10 folks can jump right in and join the discussion. I know, it probably sounds a little silly to some of you, but I see some interesting possibilities. How about using it for a quick video conference with co-workers? Or maybe you can all join the chat at the same time to watch the same movie or TV show? Perhaps you could use it for family reunions or weddings for those that can’t make it? I see a lot of possibilities if you’re creative in how you use it.
All of the features you’ve come to expect from Facebook are there too. Pictures are handled via Picasa and for Chrome users, the Move2Picasa extension will gladly migrate your old Facebook albums. Unlike normal Picasa users, Google+ users get unlimited storage of pictures up to four megapixels, more than enough to share your vacation photos. It does a decent job of identifying faces and prompting you to tag them, but you can also create your own tags. Unlike Facebook, you can specify the size of the tagged area as any rectangle, a nice little feature. You can also upload as many videos as you want.
Photo handling is fairly elegant. Via your preferences, you can pick who is allowed to tag you in pictures. No more will you have to deal with someone tagging one of those “best friend” charts, or some spammer tagging you in a totally unrelated picture. Photos are broken up into four main sections: Photos from your circles, Photos from your phone, Photos of you, and Your albums. If you have a smartphone, the Google+ app can be setup to automatically upload your pictures and videos as soon as you take them. You can then pop open the app (currently only for Android, but iOS and Windows Phone 7 are coming) and pick which ones you want to share. I like this since I often take pictures that I forget to upload or don’t want to take the time to upload right this minute.
Speaking of the mobile app, it’s very well-refined. I’ve found it to be very responsive and quick to load data even on a marginal connection. Most of the features of the website are available too, something Facebook took many iterations to kind of figure out. I’ve also found that Facebook’s latest app update is sluggish and mostly unusable on my phone. Given that Google+ is lightning fast, it’s inexcusable.
Chat is Google Chat, so it’s just the same as you’ve come to know and love in Gmail. Google+ users placed in Circles will be added to your Chat list in both places. One minor annoyance is that a chat will initially open in both Gmail and Google+ if you have both open at the same time. Once you respond in one of them, the other stops. I’m sure that’ll get fixed eventually.
Even though it’s only been out for two weeks, Google has been rapidly making updates to the website and app based on user feedback. This is in large part to giving out a lot of invites to tech press celebrities and the people they know. A lot of regular people have gotten in the door too, but these folks with a large audience is what’s driving the process. Google wants (and I daresay needs) to impress these people. This may explain why it has already hit 10M users and is projected to reach 100M within just a few more weeks.
If you find a bug or want to make a suggestion, click the Send feedback tab, highlight the section you’re referring to, add notes and annotations, then send it along. It’s a lot slicker than what it sounds like and I think has been key in getting changes made very, very quickly. The rumor mill is also insinuating that a huge batch of changes is coming next week based on this input. These fast changes are good since new features and bugs are addressed quickly. It kind of reminds me of the early days of Gmail when an already great product kept on getting better.
Google+ is clean, fast, and very customizable without spending a lot of time or effort to make it happen. It offers superior filtering and privacy controls compared to Facebook and Twitter without making you into your own walled garden. The expected features for sharing content are top-notch and easy to use, and Hangouts are likely to make video chat worth something. It won’t replace Facebook just yet, but I think it’s well on its way to being able to do so for many people. If you want to check it out, send me your email address and I’ll send you an invite.