Well, that didn’t take long. Google just unleashed a flood of invites for Google+ on an unsuspecting internet. Your friends at the Noisecast got down and dirty with Google’s most recent foray into social networking to find out not just what it is, but if it’s ready to be a real contender in the social network scene. Hit the break for the full review.
OK, Let’s Add People To This Thing
As you probably remember from the Buzz debacle, Google had to face the mighty difficult issue of getting users on to a social networking platform when people were already more than content with their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Sure, new features are awesome, but without at least a small list of folks to share things with, there’s no point. Buzz’s solution to this problem was to make your contacts list your friends list. Folks didn’t like that! The Google+ approach is a bit different.
For starters, you’re greeted with a nice page that shows you some of the contacts you already connect with on Gmail-HEY! Get back here, calm down. No, they’re not automatically added to any circles or lists. They’re just there to say “Hey, would you like to maybe add these guys?” Somewhat frustratingly, since this is still a semi-closed trial, this won’t actually invite people. Instead, you’re able to share things with people in your Circles, even if they’re not on Google+. They’ll simply get an email with whatever you share. It’s a nice way to bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots, though I imagine it won’t take long for a lot of folks to confuse this for spam.
Once you’ve got your Circles set up, it’s time to start sharing stuff. Thankfully, a lot of our initial worries have been alleviated. You’re not limited to just one circle you’d like to share with and, in fact, you’re not even limited to just people you’ve added to a circle. It’s a little confusing at first, so try to think of it as separate tiers of privacy, like this:
Public Park: As with Twitter, you can share every update publicly. Anyone who can find you on Twitter can see your updates. This is how public updates work on Google+, if you so choose. Like walking in a public park, anyone can see whatever you post, whether they’ve added you, or even have Google+ or not.
Office Building: As an option on Twitter, and as the default on Facebook, you can share things with everyone you’ve approved (via protected tweets/friend requests), however, there’s no real way to distinguish between who sees what once they’re in. Whether it’s Brad the office douche, Beverly, the hot girl in accounting, or your boss, there’s few places to hide, unless you go out of your way to do so. The “Your Circles” option, while sharing, functions like this. Anyone you’ve added can see what you share, if you choose.
Hotel: On Facebook, you can selectively modify privacy settings so that only people you choose will see certain updates, photos, or events. Sure, you can go down to the lounge and hang out with everyone, but you can also invite your buddies up to your room to hang out and you only let in the people you want to see. This is the core of how Circles are designed to work: inviting individual people, or only certain groups to conversations. Assuming you have your circles set up in a reasonably sorted way, you can choose who sees what at any time. It’s worth noting, too, that when you add someone, Google+ prompts you to pick circles they belong in, so you’d almost have to try to have improperly sorted Circles.
Google+ is perhaps the first social network I’ve seen that manages to get all the different layers of social networking right. Public, Semi-public, and entirely private. There’s even an option to share something just with your “Extended Circles” which seems to be sharing with all your friends, and also friends-of-friends, but not anyone any further disconnected than that. In practice, I doubt “Extended Circles” will be much different in people’s minds than public, though it might mean your posts show up in different places.
Sweet! That Was Easy. Now What?
So, what do you do once you’re in? Well, for starters, the same basic things you do on any other social network. Post things. See things other people post. One of the nice things is that you can filter your Stream by your Circles. In the long term, this could seriously help cut down on garbage feeds that make current sites like Facebook’s so messy. Now, these features exist in other social networks, however, Circles are such a prominent feature in Google+ that it’s virtually impossible to build friends lists without adding people to them.
The Hangout feature also works as advertised, which is to say, it’s amazing. If you see a Hangout that’s available to you in your news feed, just press the big green button to join in. You’ll get an intermediary screen that shows you your own video feed and gives you a chance to doll yourself up a bit. Click to confirm you’re definitely wearing pants and you’ll see a series of video feeds along the bottom of a screen with one main feed taking up the bulk of the space. Who’s in that main video feed is determined by whoever’s talking at the moment. It’s actually a pretty clever way of handling multiple video feeds, like an automated control room operator for a TV show. If the conversation is moving at a fast pace, or if you simply don’t like quick video feed changes, you can click on any feed and the app will focus solely on that video feed.
And if you were looking for another reason to waste time on Google+, how about this: Google Talk integration. This one came as a bit of a surprise to some of us, but the exact same Google Talk that’s been embedded in Gmail for forever is alive and well in Google+. This carries some very important implications. Not only is your regular Google Talk friends list available whether they have access to Google+ yet or not, but also one-on-one voice and video chat as well. Coupled with the group Hangout feature and Google+, right out of the gate, is one of the most connected, powerful communication platforms in existence today. And it hasn’t even reached the public at large yet.
To put it another way, for several years now, Gmail has been the unofficial hub of my life, where I would handle everything from my calendar to chat, to texting with Google Voice. Some features have moved to extensions in Chrome, and others are in the now-permanent navbar along the top of Google services. At this point, the only thing I actually need to open Gmail for is…well…email. Ironically, Gmail, stripped down to just the email functions, feels pretty slow to load compared to how quickly Google+ starts up.