Google has never quite worked with social media. After buying Blogger, it never seemed to know what to do with it. Then there were the high-profile flops Google Buzz and Google Wave. It was tempting to think that the mighty Google had lost touch completely while Facebook and Twitter gain more ground all the time.
Google+ is another attempt to take on Facebook. The twist is that this time it might work. It threatens to buck the trend of gaffe-prone Google product launches. People are actually excited about it. I’m excited about it. And I can’t remember when I last felt excited about a social media offering.
Google have obviously spent a lot of time and effort on making sure that Google+ works. A big emphasis has been placed on the user interface, with changes being rolled out across all of Google’s major products.
On that front, the biggest head-turner has been Google Circles. There is nothing particularly revolutionary at all about the concept. You separate people into different groups, meaning that you can share certain information with your close friends while keeping it hidden from occasional acquaintances.
Facebook has had this feature for as long as I can remember. But it’s never been sexy. Google has realised that people are attracted by flashy and playful interfaces as much as (or even more than) interfaces that are merely functional.
I was initially not impressed by the idea. But I have found that I have created many more circles than lists in Facebook. In Facebook I only have two — ‘Close friends’ (which I don’t particularly use) and ‘Limited profile’ which hides certain profile information from certain people.
But on Google+, I now have separate circles for six groups of people, with the intention of creating more. At the time being it is difficult to tell if the Circles feature will be useful in a way that Facebook’s lists feature isn’t.
A relatively clean slate
But what really strikes me about Google+ is the fact that its main selling point is that it’s not Facebook. Most are focusing on the privacy aspect of this. I am not sure if Google is less of a worry than Facebook on the privacy front.
But where Google has the upper hand is on its image. Over the years, Facebook has built up a lot of baggage. Facebook is now a massive deal with complicated systems of etiquette. Look at how people (only half jokingly) talk about relationships only becoming ‘official’ when your relationship status is set on Facebook.
For this sort of reason, Facebook has become a minefield. I often think twice about adding someone on Facebook just because of all the baggage that comes with it. Some people might take offence. Do they want to be Facebook friends with me? I am never sure. Which pretty much means that I add almost no-one these days.
Google Circles has a major advantage, in that it doesn’t come with all of this baggage. Moreover, it cleverly avoids calling everyone friends. When I signed up, by default I had circles called Friends, Family, Acquaintances and Following (for people I have never met but whose posts I find interesting).
The crucial inclusion of the Following circle means I can feel more comfortable about adding people. Already it is starting to feel more like Twitter or Tumblr in terms of the people that are on there, but with the functionality of Facebook.
Partly this is because, for the time being, Google+ is mainly full of the geeky types that I only know online anyway. Time will tell if Facebook users and more ‘real life’ friends will join Google+. But for me, it is a massively good sign that I have already happily added a number of people to my Google Circles, some of whom I would not consider adding on Facebook.
The other features
This is where it starts to unravel a bit for me. Beyond Circles, which is more about a change in culture rather than any revolutionary new features, I am not sure what else about Google+ is exciting.
I have tried, but I just do not understand Google Sparks. What is it for? It seems like a really bad version of Google News or Google Alerts.
Meanwhile, Hangouts looks like it could be fun, but probably not for me. Out of curiosity, I tried it out on my netbook, which has built-in the only webcam I own. But it seemed like Hangouts almost killed it! Admittedly, my netbook is a bit old and is creaking at the seams, but it wasn’t the best of experiences.
What’s to come
Overall, though, the most exciting thing about Google+ is that it heralds a change in direction for Google. It sounds like there is more in the pipeline and that they are intent on shaking up the social web. Circles is a great start.
If you happen to want to, you can add me on Google+.