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A month with Google+: Why this social network has legs

With Google+, sending out certain updates to some people and other updates to others is at the forefront of the experience.
With Google+, sending out certain updates to some people and other updates to others is at the forefront of the experience.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Google seems to be taking this project more seriously than some of its other recent efforts
  • A wide and active audience is what Google+ needs to stick around
  • The initial rush to check the service out has ended
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(ArsTechnica) -- If you're a stranger who follows me on Google+, you might think I rarely use the service. That's because the majority of my posts have been limited to the seven circles I created for friends, acquaintances, family, Ars staffers, and other people I like to expose to various aspects of my personality. You had no idea? That's exactly the point.

After one month with Google+, it's clear to me that this -- sending updates to certain groups of people and not to others -- is the main appeal of the service. I was one of the first people to loudly declare that you can do the same thing on Facebook, but so few people know this that it's basically a nonexistent feature; that's the problem with Facebook. With Google+, sending out certain updates to some people and other updates to other people is right at the forefront of the experience. You are always asked to make a conscious decision about your social circles and about which circles get to see which posts.

Some people don't like this approach. I do, but it took a while. Truth be told, I was a fierce skeptic of Google+ when it was first announced, and I wasn't pleased at the idea of using it every day for a month. (Every single day?) As the Ars forums might say, Google+ was Yet Another Social Network (YASN), and one led by the company behind the spectacular privacy failure that was Google Buzz. Google's previous social network, Orkut, failed to impress (at least, in the US), and the prospect of dedicating my time to YASN wherein I would interact with the same people I already know through Facebook or Twitter was not appealing.

But Google+ has grown on me. Despite some of its latest struggles, I think Google has a leg to stand on with its latest social venture. What Google+ has going for it

Because most of us like to frame the unfamiliar with the familiar, let's get the necessary comparison out of the way first: Google+ occupies a space somewhere between Facebook and Twitter, but I think it falls closer to the former. Features match Facebook in many ways, but it's the implementation and presentation that makes them starkly different.

Let's start with posts and Circles -- the core functionality of Google+. Posts themselves translate to Facebook wall posts or to tweets, while Google's "+1" button translates to Facebook's "Like" button.

Google+'s Circles translate to Facebook's lists but not to Groups (I'll go more into that later). Google+ prompts users to categorize every single person in their life into some sort of Circle, and those people won't be able to see any of your non-public posts unless you do so.

On Facebook, lists are virtually unknown (and are in the process of being supplanted by Facebook Groups) and Facebook users are subconsciously pushed toward public disclosure thanks to default settings and the general UI. Google+ takes the opposite approach; the predominant thought when you go to make a Google+ post is, "Who exactly will see this?"

Because Google+ pushes the Circles so hard, divvying up your posts among different groups of people is at the forefront of the experience. Those who find this laborious tend to be heavy Facebook users, which is understandable -- they're not used to facing this decision every time they make a post, and it's undoubtedly annoying to them. But for those of us who have always been trying to find ways to share information with friends while limiting exposure to others, Circles can be a blessing. Simply forcing users to always think about the distribution of their posts is in itself good for privacy.

Compare this to Twitter. Some people like to maintain two (or more) Twitter accounts in order to separate out different aspects of their lives. This has been going on since the beginning of Twitter, but seems to have increased in recent years over increased awareness about privacy. Someone might have a private account for close personal friends but still maintain a public account for everyone else; someone else might have an account for just his own musings while maintaining a second for links he wants to share.

This is an imperfect solution, and it quickly becomes cumbersome to manage more than one Twitter account. (While using Circles may be a tiny bit tedious, it's no comparison to this kind of account switching.) Google+, on the other hand, allows you to maintain a single, unified account where you don't have to switch between log-ins. I can share a link to a story I wrote with one Circle while talking about some of my life concerns with another, more intimate circle, and the two don't have to cross if I don't want them to.

Even better is Google's tool that lets you see your own profile page from another user's perspective. Want to make sure your mother can't see a post you made about puking at the bar? Type in her name (assuming she has a Google profile -- if she doesn't, then she's just public) and see which of your posts show up for her. Or say you have a post about sex toys (gasp!) and you don't want the big boss to see. You may know in your heart of hearts that you marked that post friends-only, but if you want to confirm it, you can.

The tool is simple but effective, and it can certainly help to head off embarrassing over-sharing. In fact, while taking the above screenshot, I discovered that I had accidentally added a (very) loose acquaintance to my "Close Friends" group instead of to the "Acquaintance" group, allowing him to see some of my more private observations. That was a very helpful discovery.

There are other benefits, too. There's no character limit to Google+ posts, meaning that you have much more freedom than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter and -- I didn't even know this before writing this article -- the 400 character limit imposed by Facebook. This provides the freedom to treat Google+ like a blog, but most people don't (yet) do so, and it's not particularly annoying at this point. I have already used Google+ over Twitter several times for the express purpose of asking longer questions of the general public.

Content controls

There's also the (wondrous) ability to "mute" posts on Google+. You know how you "Like" a friend's photo on Facebook, only to get alerts for every single one of that person's 300 family members when they end up commenting on the picture and arguing over whose body part is in the corner? Imagine if you could simply hit a button to ensure that you never have to hear about that post ever again -- even if it's your own post. We're not talking about blocking certain users -- sometimes you want to keep a person around, but you just don't want to hear about a topic anymore. That's a huge bonus to Google+, and those I've spoken to agree that it's one of the better unsung features of the service.

Google+ also offers the ability to re-share posts made by others. Twitter's retweet feature is similar, where the other person's content shows up in your own feed as something that you have "forwarded" onto your own followers. This in itself is handy, but Google+ takes it a step further by also offering options not to allow re-sharing (say you make a private post to a small group of people and you don't want those people re-sharing your thoughts to their own friends). The same goes for comments -- comments on every post are on by default, but you can turn them off for any specific post if you simply don't want to hear from the peanut gallery this time around.

Google presents its options in a way that acknowledges organization (and thus, privacy) first, whereas Facebook acknowledges organization and privacy as an afterthought, while organization barely exists for Twitter and privacy is an all-or-nothing venture. Google+ also has other neat features, such as the video-based Hangouts that let multiple users get together online and watch things like YouTube videos in an Internet group setting. Though I don't consider Hangouts to be a core reason to use Google+, plenty of users seem to like it, so good for them.

What the competition has going for it

Google+ is not the end-all, be-all of social networks -- and Twitter or Facebook have their own strengths.

To take one example, although Facebook lists have some of the same functionality as Google+ Circles, Facebook also has Groups, which sort of have the same end goal but operate much differently. Facebook Groups essentially act like a private "room" in which a group of people can share things. For example, if you're familiar with Facebook events, it's like having an event page where everyone who was invited can leave comments and share items, but without the party attached. Everyone is on equal ground when they are invited to be part of a Facebook Group; it functions like your own private group wall.

This is especially handy for actual groups (as in, not just your clique), such as book clubs or running groups -- people who want a centralized place for just themselves to share information, links, commentary, etc., and for everyone to have the opportunity to share equally.

Compare that to Circles (or to Facebook lists), where you create the list of people and then you make posts that go out to those specific people. People in your Google+ Circle cannot make posts that go out to the other members of your Circle unless they create their own Circle that mirrors yours. And if they create their own Circles, there may be other members in those Circles who aren't necessarily included in your Circle on the same topic. This is an obvious downside to Circles and an upside to Facebook Groups for sharing among members of a group.

Most importantly, what both Facebook and Twitter have is what every social network needs to succeed: a wide and active audience. Google+ is seeing a respectable amount of success -- certainly much more success than any other new social network has seen in years -- but there are plenty of reasons why the masses will remain at their old haunts for a while. Many people stick to Facebook because that's where their real-life friends and family members are, and that's a perfectly valid reason to stay. The same goes for Twitter: people use it to blast observations and information to their followers in a quick-moving and bite-sized manner, and that's exactly why it has been so successful.

Neither of these services will be displaced in the immediate future by Google+, and most Google+ users still use one or both of the others as their "main" social network. That goes for me, too.

But Google+ will stick around

During my month of using Google+ every day, I've already seen signs that the initial rush to check the service out has ended -- there's less activity now than there was, say, during its first two weeks. But what's also clear is that a core base seems to be sticking around, and I believe they'll remain long enough to see Google+ establish itself as one of the main networks that Real People"! actually use.

Yes, Google+ has already run into a number of issues in its first month -- there was a weekend recently in which a plethora of accounts were swiftly and mysteriously deleted, and it was only revealed later that Google was attempting to enforce a "real name" rule that many people didn't know about. There were also some transparency and consistency issues that turned the whole episode into a minor debacle.

Google+ could also use improvement. For example, the notifications menu on the Web app is borderline useless, communicating as little information as possible while constantly bugging you at the top of nearly every Google-related Web app in existence. (Really? Google can't even give me a hint about which post my friend commented on before I click? There's an awful lot of space where that information could live.) Then, when you click on any item in the list, the entire list marks itself as read! Could this menu and its functionality be any more frustrating?

But such problems are growing pains. Google seems to be taking this project more seriously than some of its other recent efforts, and the company has said multiple times -- to the media and on Google+ itself -- that it is listening closely to user feedback. Additionally, the company has said that it has plans to expand Google+ support throughout its other services; this is just the beginning.

However, the most important thing for Google to do right now is to retain its current audience and keep the momentum going. Enough people use Google+ and say enough good new things about it that it could establish itself as a legitimate alternative to Facebook, but fickle users can easily be driven away by boredom at this early stage. So long as Google+ keeps improving, it should be okay; if it implements some of the suggestions thrown out by its users, it could be more than okay.

As for me, I have always used Twitter (lots) more than Facebook, and I have always been a little allergic to other services. I still use Twitter the most, but now I use Google+ on a regular basis and Facebook barely at all. Even the thought of going to Facebook seems a little old-fashioned to me when I could be using Google+.

Google+ has legs. Now it's up to Google to see how far it can run.

COPYRIGHT 2011 ARSTECHNICA.COM

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