Instead of working on my thesis, this morning I’ve been tooling around with Google+, Google’s new social layer. I’ll leave it to others to do the really deep analysis, but based on own my test drive, here’s what I’ve learned so far:
The UI is as tasty as everyone says it is. It’s clear the front end of this project (and it’s a project, not a product) was crafted with an eye toward design. More importantly, we aren’t talking about design-by-engineer — a problem that’s consistently frustrated Google launches, and I’d argue still afflicts Android today. This is design by guys who can speak design.
The ability to connect with people you don’t know has great potential. Unlike Facebook, which encourages you to make connections only after you’ve met someone offline, Google+ makes it easy to discover new individuals who are interested in the same things you are. In that way, it’s much more like Twitter than Facebook. Google+ promotes serendipitous encounters and facilitates spontaneous gatherings of loosely affiliated people.
The privacy aspect is genius. There have been times when I’d post a Facebook status that began with the qualifier “To all my LSE friends…” Unintentionally spamming people with links they’re not likely to be interested in has become a thing of the past. Of course, that doesn’t spell the end of oversharing generally.
Like Facebook? At first, and like many people, I thought Google+ was simply a stab at recreating Facebook, but I’ve come to the conclusion that Google+’s main feature isn’t the Stream (a clone of Facebook’s newsfeed). It’s the Circles feature, which are really more like superpowered Google Groups than anything else. Consider their analogue, Facebook groups. Facebook groups are generally subordinate to the newsfeed. In my own experience, I’ve tended to ignore my group memberships and rarely visit those pages if at all. But Circles get top billing in Google+. They’re not simply other pages to visit. They have a direct effect on the way you view your Stream and communicate with people you’re connected to. It feels much more deeply integrated into the communicative experience than a separate chat room off to the side of your newsfeed.
Setting up Circles? Pure drudgery. Google+ is at once both a control freak’s dream and his worst nightmare. With Circles, you can organize your relationships however you want. Most people will be happy sticking to categories like “Co-Workers,” “Neighbors,” “Family,” and so on. But it can get really complex, really fast, if you want it to. Contacts can be part of two circles at the same time, so someone I put in my “London School of Economics” circle could also be part of an “Interested in Politics” circle. Or a third circle, called “London Friends.”
How do you visualize your own friendships? The complete freedom to choose how you organize your relationships forces you to think about the boundaries that distinguish certain individuals from others. This is actually really, really difficult. What makes somebody a “friend”? Facebook users are broadly aware of this problem, but because Facebook considers every person you’re connected to a friend, grappling with the question is pointless. With Google+, you’re forced to confront and examine the unconscious lines your mind draws among your various social circles.
Sparks won’t replace my RSS reader. Sparks is a novel way of finding new and interesting content. It’s like subscribing to a Google search on a particular topic, and those searches are saved in your sidebar. Content you find on Sparks can be shared in your Stream. But as a news junkie, my media consumption is more aggressive. Another filter isn’t what I want. You might say I want just the opposite — the firehose — as an antidote to my FOMO. Sparks feels like an appetizer, or a tapas platter, to Google Reader’s entree. Just compare these two screenshots: one of my Google Reader, and one of my Sparks. You tell me which one seems more efficient.
Do you have Google+ yet? Have you been reading about it? What are your impressions?