What Is Google+?

Google, in typical Google fashion, just dropped a bomb on us in the mild form of a blog post: introducing Google+, the new social networking service from Google! And to answer your first question, no, you don’t need to panic and go disable it right now. It’s not live yet, and won’t be for a while. Live and learn, I suppose. So, to answer your second question, should you be excited? Terrified? Hit the jump to find out more.

OK, So, Did Google Just Reinvent Facebook?

Nope! In fact, early on in the introductory blog post, Google has a quite a few very thoughtful things to say on the subject of social:

Not all relationships are created equal. So in life we share one thing with college buddies, another with parents, and almost nothing with our boss. The problem is that today’s online services turn friendship into fast food—wrapping everyone in “friend” paper—and sharing really suffers.

Given that these sentences are being written by the same company that decided not too long ago that you want to share everything on your Blogger account with whatever seemingly random group of people Buzz threw together for you, the above quote is surprisingly thoughtful. Indeed, if you were to interact with me in multiple areas online, you’d see very different people. I share different things on Twitter than I do on Facebook. I have a different conversational tone in comment threads than I do on IRC. And Google’s correct that making these distinctions in tone is difficult unless you simply change who you are based on what social network you’re using is.

Google’s answer to this is a concept called Circles. The idea is simple, and mirrors a lot of the Groups features of other social networking services. You can easily drag and drop the people you know into different “Circles”. The folks you get together with on the weekend? They’ve got a circle. Your family? A circle of their own. What’s unclear is if you can add people to multiple circles, or if you can have an “all” circle. Sometimes it is nice to post something to your entire collective and see who it sticks to. What is clear, though, is that Google’s demo of the concept is slick. It looks like this isn’t representative of the final project, but if it’s an indication of how things will look/feel when it launches, it’ll be gorgeous.

Well, Groups Circles Are Cool, But What Does It Do That Facebook Doesn’t?

Actually, quite a bit from the sound of it. The blog post also discusses how we interact with other people via shared interests:

Healthy obsessions inspire sharing, and we’ve all got one (or two, or three…). Maybe it’s muscle cars, or comic books, or fashion, but the attraction is always the same: it comes up in conversation, we immediately jump in, and we share back and forth with other fans. Often for hours. The trick is getting things started, and getting over that initial hump. Fortunately, the web is the ultimate icebreaker.

In keeping with the “Wait, Google actually sounds like they kind of get it,” mentality, this is another good point. Connections are made with people based on shared interests, and this is one major flaw with current social networks. You can include someone in a group based on how you know them, or you can even join a group that’s built on a shared interest, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a blank page waiting for someone to say something.

Enter Sparks. The closest analogue I can think of to Sparks is the various Facebook groups devoted to whatever subject someone creates a group for. Or, alternatively, fan pages for shows/musicians/things you like. Sparks is different in that you’re able to enter whatever you’d like, and you get a feed of items pulled from all over the web, like a topics-based RSS feed. This is perhaps one of the most innovative features because it combines the social networking aspects of the new Google+ with what Google does best: search. A demo video shows a user adding some interests, finding items in their new Sparks feeds, and then picking a couple Circles to share an item with. Comment threads directly below shared items encourage conversations about the content, and each comment even has it’s own +1 button (subtle, Google).

It’s almost a perfect reversal of Facebook’s like button. Facebook is attempting to integrate it’s social network into the web via the Like button. Google, on the other hand, wants to bring the web to the social network.

So, How Do You Interact With People Online? Is There A Chat/Message Feature?

It’s unclear just how (or if) Google is planning on implementing or integrating more traditional messaging features, especially since things like Gmail and Google Talk already exist. However, the post does attempt to address a couple of issues with social network communication:

Just think: when you walk into the pub or step onto your front porch, you’re in fact signaling to everyone around, “Hey, I’ve got some time, so feel free to stop by.” Further, it’s this unspoken understanding that puts people at ease, and encourages conversation. But today’s online communication tools (like instant messaging and video-calling) don’t understand this subtlety. They’re annoying, for starters. You can ping everyone that’s “available,” but you’re bound to interrupt someone’s plans. They’re also really awkward. When someone doesn’t respond, you don’t know if they’re just not there, or just not interested.

The hits just keep on coming. The next feature Google discusses is a thing called Hangouts. What appears to be an amalgam of group chat, video chat, and status updates, you can choose to broadcast, to a Circle, that you’re “hanging out”. At this point, a demo video seems to imply that your mic and webcam turn on (if you have them), and anyone who sees what I’m assuming will be your feed can join your Hangout. You’ll then be on a group chat, a la TinyChat, with them. There’s even a handy feature where whoever is talking (or talking the loudest) gets center stage in the group video chat.

This is the first feature I’m a little iffy about. While it’s true there’s not a good online analogue to chilling at a coffee house, video chat is still one of those things you have to prepare for. Few folks I know make sure they look good before getting on Facebook, and if the habits of folks I’ve seen get on Facebook is any indication, the behind-the-scenes of Facebook time can be pretty ugly. Or embarrassing. As they say, it’s on a volunteer-basis, so you’d never be on a Hangout you didn’t want to be, but I could see people being reserved if the only way they could hang out is if their webcam was on. Make it a group chat where video is optional and we might have something going. Though, funny we should say that…

Another social feature of Google+ is called Huddles, which seems to find its roots in BBM. The demo video shows this group chat feature demoed on a Nexus S (which is encouraging for those who want to be social online while being social in real life). As before, we see a Circle selected, and the group chat begins! Somewhat sadly, it seems that Huddles aren’t just Hangouts without the video chat as it’s unclear just how you declare yourself to be available. One issue I’ve frequently had with Facebook chat is that my phone decides I’m available for chat whenever it feels like it. Hangouts seems to alleviate that problem, except that it’s got a video-chat focus and might not be available for phones.

While there’s plenty of room to be misunderstanding how these two features work, assuming they work as we’re interpreting, it would almost be nicer to see the two merged and video chat be a mere option for Hangouts. But the current model still seems decent, so we’ll see how it goes.

You Mentioned A Phone App. What Can That Do?

Given the immense popularity of the mobile platform Google has, it’s no surprise that Google’s emphasizing mobile right off the bat. Any of the posts you make to any social circle can be embedded with your location, the +1 mobile app (which is already available on the Android Market, though you still need an invite to get in) has Huddles embedded from the start. It’s unclear until we get our invite what else it can do, but once we know, you’ll get a review.

Google’s even got a handy new feature for your camera: as soon as you take a picture, your photos will be uploaded to an album online so they’ll be ready for you to share, obviating the need to sync your device or copy any files over. Presumably, this will be directly linked with Google+, so you can click a button and share a picture. Or not. Admittedly, having all of your photos stored in the cloud sounds pretty cool. Just be sure to disable it when you get ready to take those naughty ones.

So, Should I Be Excited?

If new social networks get you excited, yes. If new Google services get you excited, yes. If you don’t really care about either, well…wait and see. It’s clear that Google’s learned quite a bit from the Buzz debacle, and they’re ready to take another stab at this whole “social internet” thing. And they’ve put a lot of thought into it. Until we get our hands on a working demo, though, we won’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. After all, they thought quite a lot about rethinking email when they thought up Wave, and that thought thunk it’s last think nearly a year later.

Still. The concepts are interesting. Time will tell if it can rival Facebook’s now-700-million strong userbase, but if you were looking for a rival social network to keep an eye on, this is the first time in a while we’ve seen a real intriguing contender. (Whatever happened to Diaspora, anyways?)

Sources: Google Mobile Blog, The Google+ Project, Google+ Demo

7 thoughts on “What Is Google+?”

  1. I hope it works faster than Facebook. Facebook has been hanging up a lot lately, crashing tabs in chrome and such, it’s been pissing me off slowly.

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