This Is Not A Review
I have been using Google+ for a little over a week now, and over the course of that time, I have written several versions of this post you are reading right now. Initially, I intended this to be a review of sorts, as I tend to do here, but the web is covered in tech pundits writing reviews and issuing proclamations regarding Google+. I would like to think that if you are now reading indie sites like this instead of any of the major blogs, you’re hoping to find something a little different.
A Misanthrope In Social Networking
Despite the fact that I’ve had an account on almost every major social networking site at one time or another, and the fact that I publish publicly on this website, I am not an overly social person. I’m a private person, and do not like revealing a lot of personal information to people I don’t know. Even with my friends I can be a little bit slow to let people in on what I’m thinking about, which is what prompted a friend to give me the title “Minister of Intrigue”, which is where this site derives its name. However, I also have good friends who are scattered all across the globe, and social networking sites have provided an easy way of keeping in touch with all of them. As an added bonus, it means I can keep in touch with people without having to use the phone, a medium for conversation that I particularly hate.1
Now, I get really frustrated with social media people in general. Hearing someone use buzzwords or talk about the “power of social media” is almost certain to set me to grinding my teeth. However, I can’t deny that social networking has had a profound impact on my life. I don’t mean that in a fuzzy connection to online communities way, I mean in a very tangible and specific way. You see, back in 2005, like so many of you, I had a MySpace account, and it was through MySpace that I met my wife. I had just moved to Madison and was looking to find people my own age to hang out with. She was getting ready to move to Madison from Milwaukee and was trying to meet people in the area. That we found a relationship through this process came as a surprise to us both. There is no doubt that this was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me and it changed my life for the better in every way.
So, you see, no matter how frustrated I get with social media douchebaggery, I can never completely turn my back on it, because it’s part of what gave me a source of boundless joy in my life.
Isn’t This Supposed To Be About Google+?
Talking about Google+ is boring. It’s the human aspect of social networking that makes things interesting, not the technology.
That being said, I do think there are some very interesting things going on in Google+. So let’s address those.
The Kind Of Reviewy Part
I really like the Circles concept in Google+, it allows me to organize contacts in a way that makes total sense to me. As a result, since I have better control over who sees what, I share a hell of a lot more than I do anywhere else. In the past week, I’ve spent more time on Google+ than I ever have on another site, even considering the honeymoon periods after discovering each of those other services. I was doing a personal inventory today and I believe I’ve identified a couple reasons for that.
The first reason is the aforementioned privacy controls. I can control who sees what, so I’m willing to target my posts for the group that I’m talking to at the time, just like in real life. I can do this without getting too stressed about public posts that could interfere with my work persona or otherwise. I still believe in the adage that if you don’t want something to be public, you shouldn’t put it online at all, but I feel like Google+ provides a little more leeway than posting on competing services. Circles work very well for me, so I feel more comfortable sharing.
The other reason is integration. I use Google for a lot of things: email, calendaring, maps, etc. Having the social network right there while I’m working with it, makes it very compelling to keep using it, but it also works the other way around. I’ve never used Picasa much at all, since I’ve always preferred Flickr’s interface. That being said, at least in my circle of friends, there isn’t much interaction with each other over on Flickr, so I’ve ended up copying a lot of the photos over to Picasa so that I can easily share them in Google+2. The end result is that I’m now using a Google product that I never had before, which I’m sure is the real goal of Google+: to bring people to Google services and make them want to keep using them.
I also see some strong possibilities for serious integration with the other products as well. For example, I’ve never used Event services on other social networks because I find them clunky and totally outside of my daily workflow. If Google were to bake in an Events product that was connected with Google Calendar, that’s an attractive possibility. Essentially, if you’re a Google user like myself, you will eventually find that what makes Google+ so compelling is that it can be tightly integrated with all the other services that let you organize your life. Even if you are not as heavy a Google user as I am, over the course of using Google+ I’m sure you will begin to explore the other services listed in that top bar and sooner or later you will start using them.
I have seen some discussion online of using Google Apps for your domain as a white-labeled version of Plus, but I’m not sure I see it happening anytime soon. Ultimately, social networks are at their strongest when they have a large user pool, and I have a hard time seeing Google fragmenting their user base in that manner. Maybe at some point, but I think it is far more likely they incorporate some advanced group functionality before they start creating a white-label version of the service just to make the geeks happy. My guess is that, at least in the short term, apps users will only be getting the option to use their domain as their primary google profile.
From a basic user experience and a technical perspective, this is a very strong opening from Google.
Why Should We Care About A New Social Network?
A fresh start?
Seriously, I’m not going to try and play this off as some sort of revolutionary new technology. It is just a very well thought out approach to social networking, with a huge user base of Google Profiles baked into it from the beginning. That means that it provides an opportunity to try to reboot the way we do social networking with a service that is unlikely to fail. That’s always been the problem with new social networks, it’s impossible to commit to using them, because it was always unlikely to pull enough other people in to survive.
Listen, I love Twitter as much as the next guy, but it’s not a place where you connect with people, it’s a place for performance art. While there are some conversations going on there, the character limit keeps them shallow. The majority of posts are people trying to develop their own witticisms. Facebook has a different problem. It has a lot of people, ostensibly there to connect personally, but a mess of privacy controls that are hard to use. It doesn’t make sense to people so they either over-share, or in cases like my own, don’t do much there except cross-post my public posts to it. After the number of Facebook’s privacy gaffes, lots of savvy users don’t really want to post there at all, or do so in a limited fashion. And don’t even talk to me about Friendfeed, as it, along with its doomed copy Google Buzz, was just a fount of noisy automated imports from social media douchebags.
The nice thing about Google+ is that it provides a way of doing granular sharing, something Twitter lacks and Facebook makes possible only by a huge effort on the part of the user. This means that users can be more comfortable sharing more openly with their close friends, as opposed to doing a performance piece. In addition, for the time being, they do not allow auto-importing of content from other services, which means that the only way to use Google+ right now is if you actively engage with it. I think this opens up an opportunity for people to redefine how they do social networking. You can do your performance bit via public posts if you wish, and you can still do personal interaction with your circles. We will never get away from the folks online that like to treat their social networking friends like collectible baseball cards, but at least on Google+ there are manageable ways to work around those folks, and ultimately the interface’s limitations discourage their behavior. Maybe that’s an intentional design decision, and maybe it isn’t, but it’s something I hope they don’t change anytime soon. We’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime.
What I’m enjoying about Google+ is the ability to have fun with a load of highly engaged users, while getting to share personal moments with my closest friends, and being able to do all that in one place. I’m not going to do the traditional pundit thing and make some proclamation that Google+ will kill any other service, but it has created a pleasant oasis online that provides exactly what I’m looking for in a social network.
Of course, I don’t expect social networking to change my life again as profoundly as it did when I met my wife, but I do hope that someday we can all find a way to interact online that’s deeper and more real, instead of constantly trying to prove to each other that we are clever. My wife and I connected during the early days of social networking, before the social media bubble began to expand, and as a result we were communicating with each other like real people, not avatars. This is what enabled us to meet each other in person, which is where we began to fall in love. I’d love to see a renaissance of that kind of sincere interaction online, and I’m hoping that you’ll agree with me and use the blank slate of Google+ to try to make that happen.