Saturday, July 09, 2011

Google+ in its limited field trial

I've been using Google+ for over a week now, and I thought I'd give my impressions here, for those who haven't tried it yet.

What is it?

If you use Facebook, it's like Facebook, but with some important differences.

Google+ uses "following" (asymmetric, like Twitter: one person follows the posts of another) instead of "friending" (reciprocal, like Facebook: for them to get your posts, you have to get theirs). (More on that.) The beauty of this is that you can ignore people without hurting their feelings. For example, due to a few Google+ themed posts, I have been "followed" by several people I don't know. This is OK-- I get to choose what is public and available to them or private and available to only a certain group, and I am not obliged to follow them back, unless I am interested in their posts as well. I've also become comfortable following people I don't know, the Google superstars (journalists, tech bloggers, Google employees), because I know that following them doesn't impose a "friendship" on them. It just means I'm interested in what they have to say.

A social network is greatly influenced by the people using it. Currently, the people using Google+ are Google geeks. Many of the posts are about Google+ itself: suggestions for improvement, cool features someone found, and the occasional Google+ vs. Facebook slap video. (Not worth the link.) There isn't much navel-gazing, and there isn't the feeling that you're posting to an empty room, or to the ether. I think the people using Google+ right now are invested in shaping the Google+ culture. I've seen posts debating whether pseudonyms should be allowed or offering a clever way to organize circles. One post linked to an "Introduction to Google+" on Google Docs that was open for editing by anyone with the link-- 120 people were able to edit at once (limited by the Google Docs capacity), and they came up with a great set of tips. It's fun to see so much collaboration and positive attitude in one place, and I hope it continues as Google+ grows.

There is some discussion as to whether Google+ will attract non-geeks. I've seen some of my less-geeky friends join, but I'm not convinced yet. I'm lucky because I had a network of people on Google Buzz who all moved over to Google+ virtually simultaneously. With these people and my extended geeky stranger network, there's plenty of activity that makes it valuable to me. But if your goal is to keep in touch with people who are already on Facebook, and happy there, it doesn't make sense to change anything. Besides, you don't have to join Google+ to benefit from it.

Google+ allows you to put people into circles and share posts/photos/etc. with them, regardless of whether they're also on Google+. When you compose a post (or share a photo album), you choose which circle(s) to post to. For example, I can share my Galapagos photo album with a circle of people who were on the trip with me. None of them are on Google+, but it gives me the option to email them with a link to the album. When they click on that link, they can see all the photos. They're also given the option to join Google+, but they don't have to. (Not true on Facebook.) You can read posts and comments, but you can't add comments. In short, if all you want to do is lurk, no need to join.

Is it a Facebook killer?

I hate that term. I don't like Facebook and I feel strongly about this, but I don't think there should be just one social network. Competition makes software stronger, and I think Facebook could use a little competition. I'd love to see several social network platforms that can work together, so each person can choose one with the features and the style they like best, and still be able to interact with people on other platforms seamlessly. Like email. Part of the reason I prefer Google to Facebook is that Google has a history of using open standards. For example, Outlook and Google Calendar use open standards. I once received an Outlook invitation that looked and felt and acted like a Google Calendar invitation. It just worked. In contrast, I once received a Facebook event invitation that I could not RSVP to because I don't have a Facebook account. It didn't work. My hope is that if Google+ gets enough users, it will force Facebook to cooperate in a way that allows them to share the social networking market.

What's it missing?

A lot, actually. As smooth as it seems, there's a lot of room for growth, and Google is wise to make it a limited field trial. There are some buggy things, like inconsistencies in the user interface. There are many suggestions on how to make it more user friendly, to minimize the number of clicks for a certain action. And there are some bigger things that they're probably working on but aren't ready to release.

One problem I had with Facebook was that the people I care the most about don't post very often, and people I care less about post a lot. The important posts would get lost, creating a signal to noise issue. In Google+ I've solved that by making a circle of people I care the most about. I can click on that circle and see posts from just those people. But Google, the search company, should be able to take it a step further and create an algorithm that learns what I'm most interested in, based on my commenting, +1 (like), and mute activity. In essence: I like photos from this person, I don't like photos from that person. I like posts from this person on this topic, but not that topic. This could be solved with tags or filters, but Google should be able to do it automagically. I posted this publicly and a Google code hacker took the idea (with my permission) and ran with it. I realize Facebook has something like this. I still don't seem to find anything of interest in that stream.

Google has updated so many of its most important products in the last two weeks: Gmail, Calendar, Blogger, Picasa, and others I don't care about. Reader is conspicuously missing from the list. It's one of the most popular feed readers, and yet not even an updated look. This is the second big tweak I think they're working on. Google+ has Sparks, a kind of dumbed-down news search where you enter an interest and it pulls up recent articles on that topic, making it easy to share them. But in Reader, I can click "share" and it will share it to my Reader followers and my Buzz followers. And update to Reader should allow sharing through Reader to Google+. I think they're not allowing this yet because they want to get people interacting within Google+ first, not just feeding links into it from outside sources.

Finally, there's a little bit of disconnect in Circles. I'll keep some things private to my closest circles, and post other things more publicly. But although I'm happy to share my book reviews with the world, I know not everyone in my circles is interested in reading them. The same way I'm interested in some of what Leo Laporte has to say, but I'm not interested in his vacation photos, which he's happy to make public. I had to un-follow him for that. Google may be working on a kind of public circle, where I create the circle and manage it, but people can opt-in if they're interested in the topic. I'd like that. Otherwise, maybe my dream algorithm will take care of it.

Are invites available?

Yes, off and on. Yesterday the invite button appeared and didn't show a limit to the number of invites I could send, today it's gone. But early on someone figured out a way to invite people by sharing a post with them. Once you have an invitation, you can log in at the sign-up page, maybe. In the past, they've restricted access even to people with an invite, to avoid overloading their servers. I think they're loosening the reigns some more. If you're still interested to try Google+ let me know.

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