The plusses and minuses of Google+

This might get a little long in the tooth so you may want to top-up that beverage.

Google has run me over like a freight train. Over the last few weeks I’ve been living on it instead of Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare. In fact, I made the prediction that Google could replace many of the most popular services.

But before I get into all of that I thought I’d share how Google is different.

Every social networking site was started with a particular purpose in mind. Over time those services typically find their niche (if they survive long enough to do so) whether or not it was the original reason for its inception or not.

Let’s use LinkedIn as an example. LinkedIn was created to be the professional’s social network. A network of people that are connected at some professional, rather than personal or familial, level. This sort of distinction for LinkedIn is completely different to that of Facebook, which tries to connect people that know each other in some way, or Twitter, which doesn’t care if you know anyone, and is an invaluable differentiator in the world of social networking. Heck, it led to LNKD.

Google , however, goes against this "find the niche" convention. Rather than trying to fill a niche like Facebook or LinkedIn they’re taking on every level of human connection; professional, familial, social, voyeur, etc. and combining them all into one service. They do all of this by providing a different relationship model called Circles.

Circles are nondescript buckets of relationships that you create on your own and can change at anytime. For example you can create some typical social Circles for Coworkers, Friends, Family, Ex-Schoolmates, Basketball Friends, etc. Each of these Circles will have specific meaning to you and no one else. They allow you to segregate your relationships into very meaningful categories that help you connect with many different people all in one place.

Why is this a good thing? In my mind the reasons are innumerable. For instance, maintaining profiles and networks in multiple locations, and somehow engaging with those services regularly, can end up being a monumental draw on your time. I won’t say it is a waste of your time because keeping a LinkedIn profile up-to-date and active has meant many professional opportunities for people. However, keeping every single site up-to-date can get cumbersome and, for those that "follow" you in multiple locations, noisy.

Your LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook networks could all co-exist and never intersect using Google ‘s Circles.

One more thing to say about Circles… they aren’t just lists. Facebook and Twitter both have lists and Google ‘s Circles are not, and should not be, comparable. On Facebook someone has to confirm that you are their friend before the relationship is created. So if you only want to "follow" what is going on with a particular person you can’t unless they approve the relationship (or if they are a Celebrity and create a "page" for themselves rather than a normal account). Once they have, though, you can then separate them into lists. On Facebook you may use lists to filter your main stream or use them to send messages directly to those within those lists (though not nearly as easily as you can on Google which I’ll get to in the next paragraph). On Twitter, lists are made to keep your main stream cleaner. Rather than "following" Ashton Kutcher, as an example, one can add him to a Celebrities or Entrepreneurs or Investors list. This way Kutcher’s tweets don’t muddy up your main stream but you can check in with him from time-to-time using Twitter’s Lists. At least, that is how I use Lists. Oh, and you can’t specify how you share on Twitter. You’re either public or private and that is it.

Here is where Google ‘s Circles really separate themselves from the pack. Sharing. Anything you share on Google ; a post, a photo, a video, specific information on your profile such as your phone number, etc. can be shared with a limitless subset of your relationships on Google .

Here, I’ll provide some examples. Let’s say that you want to send a message to everyone at work. If you had a Coworkers Circle you can type in your message to them, choose to only share it with your Coworkers, and hit publish. Only people that you’ve put into the Coworkers Circle will see it. But it can get even more granular than that. You can choose to share a bit of information with more than one Circle or a Circle and a specific person and so on. Maybe you want to tell all of your friends that you’re going to see a movie tonight but you also want to tell your family and one guy from work. You can do that. Or maybe you just want to send a message to one particular person, or two or three, you can do that too. Or, better yet, maybe you want to send a message to someone privately that doesn’t even have you in their Circles, you can do that (unlike Twitter’s Direct Message feature).

Privacy and Sharing options on Google are probably the best we’ve ever seen on a social networking service to-date and, believe it or not, they’ve made it pretty easy to understand and use. We all remember the flack Facebook got for making privacy confusing to its hundreds of millions of users. Google ‘s privacy options, by comparison, are very easy to understand.

They even have a "view my profile as" feature that allows you to view your own profile as if you were someone else. You can view your profile as if you were your boss or the public-at-large or your future girlfriend. This makes it simple to edit who can see what.

Hopefully this helps frame where Google could potentially fit for some. It could, in theory, replace Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn’s niche approach to social networking and allow you to combine all of your relationships in one place. And, you can control exactly what you call those relationships rather than being tied down to the world’s nomenclature of relationships.

The Plusses

I’ve described why Circles are, potentially, better at describing relationships and give us the ability to combine all of our social networks in one spot. But that isn’t the only thing Google has going for it.

Ever since the days of Brightkite I’ve been using a secondary service to handle check-ins. Checking into a place, for me, is a better option than simply tweeting "I’m at such-and-such with so-and-so". Surrounding a check-in is important metadata like location, time, etc. and a tweet is fleeting. Also many check-in services provide you with some sort of context around the location you’re currently in. At the moment my favorite check-in service is Foursquare. However, Google provides you with a nice set of check-in tools (although very young). From the Google iPhone application you can simply check-into a place and provide no other information (ala Foursquare, Gowalla) or you can choose to add additional information or a photo. While it separates out an actual check-in from a normal post it doesn’t make you feel as though the two are not interchangeable. They’ve struck a great balance with this and I can only hope it will get better.

Photo sharing from your computer or mobile-phone on Google is not only simple but also has a rich feature-set. Don’t forget, you can use the power of your Circles to share photos with any subset of your relationships. A photo of your newborn that you only want mom and dad to see? Done. A super-secret-mockup of something you’re building at work that you only want your coworkers and wife to see? Done. A photo of you in front of a landmark for the whole world to see? Done. Oh, and Google allows you to apply some effects to your photos as well. Someday Google could replace Instagram, Flickr, and Facebook photos.

Posts on Google have no character limit. Some consider the 140-character limit of Twitter to be its single greatest strength. As is often said sometimes your greatest strength can also be your greatest weakness. There are times when our thoughts span beyond 140-characters (no matter how succinct you are). I’ve found the slightly longer posts of Google to be most enjoyable and the Google team have designed the interface in such a way that longer posts don’t detract from the shorter ones. The vast majority of posts I’ve seen on Google could fit within Twitter’s character limit but every once in a while people have more to say.

Google ‘s Hangout, Huddle, and Sparks features are neat but they don’t yet fit into my plusses list. They aren’t minuses either. Whether you use them or not they do not get in the way. I’ve played around with these features and while I haven’t found a valuable use for them yet I may in the future.

The Minuses

For any social networking service the single biggest reason they fail is lack of adoption. While Google has become the fastest growing site of-all-time that doesn’t mean that people are using it. In my Circles (get it?) Google has not yet been fully adopted. The people that have been most active are very early adopters, people that work at Google, and people that do not have accounts on Twitter or Facebook. Will this change? Will Google somehow convince people, as they did me, to use Google for a few days to see if it sticks? We’ll see.

Keeping up with your stream on Google is fairly impossible and by that I mean making sure you see every single message. It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that these realtime services care less and less about people keeping up-to-date with what has happened but care much more about showing them what is happening right now. This is a design choice and one that ultimately we may all have to get used to – but it isn’t one I particularly care for at the moment. Right or wrong I treat these streams like I treat my email inbox. I don’t want to miss messages from my family or friends and on Google this is very difficult. You see, Google ‘s stream shows you the most-recently-updated post on top rather than the most-recently-published post. This distinction is important. A post that was written 5 days ago could resurface to the very top of your stream because someone left a comment in it. From what I’ve heard and read Google is using some complex computation to manage the stream. These guys are extremely good at fiddling with "algorithms" until they’re just right so I’ll withhold judgement on how they do this until they think they’ve got it.

The brevity of tweets makes them very, very easy to consume. Posts on Google can be a little harder to digest and that has caused, in some, a feeling of being overwhelmed. When my mother logs onto Twitter she sees a few messages from friends and family and perhaps a tweet or two from NASA. On Google with links, photos, videos, hangouts, etc. it can be a bit jarring and you feel like you can’t get your feet on the ground. Maybe Google will be able to figure out this problem but maybe not. Those of us that stick with Google may be the type of people that can wade through an enormous amount of information quickly while those that can will be left out in the cold. We’ll see.

At a technical level Google is fairly sound. The growth rate of Google has been nothing short of astounding and the fact that there hasn’t been an interruption in service is commendable. The iPhone application, on the other hand, is another story altogether. It was released fairly soon after Google went into "field testing" mode and its newness shows. It is incredibly slow, poorly designed (for actual use but it looks great), and has major issues with location. These types of frustrations, no doubt, will go away but for now the iPhone application falls squarely at the bottom of my minuses list.

Overall I believe that Google could replace many services for me; Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Instagram, Flickr. Each of these services may still have their place but the majority of what I choose to share could definitely be handled by Google if more people actively used it. Ultimately whether or not I go 100% Google or not will depend on whether or not people adopt it. I don’t know if the 25M people that have created Google accounts will give it enough time to sink in and use it on a daily basis. Selfishly I hope they do because I’m sort of tired with keeping up with multiple streams and services. It’d be very nice to consolidate many of these things into one stream.

Time will tell where we all end up. But if you’d like to add me to your "Really Cool People" Circle I’ve created a special URL for my Google profile:

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