On June 28th, Google Inc. heralded the arrival of their new baby, Google+. With Facebook reaching 750 million users worldwide, the advent of this newcomer seemed like a battle lost before it had even begun. Twitter aside, nothing has come close to touching Facebook insofar as daily social management online…until now.
This new baby might be the chosen one. Sweeping generalisation? We’ll see. It’s still in the testing stages and will most probably have teething problems, but time will tell. The main reason I think Google+ will succeed is because it’s been designed around the very things that are annoying or uncomfortable about Facebook. As with Facebook, the main issue will be privacy and how Google deals with the vast amounts of personal information it’s privvy to, but more on that a bit later.
With more and more people connecting to each other online, frustration with any inflexibility in online tools spreads and escalates quickly. However, functionality has to leap for people to overcome key barriers such as migrating your social groups and spending time getting to know a new platform. Does Google+ have what it takes?
Google’s pitch is: “We’d like to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software. We want to make Google better by including you, your relationships, and your interests.” Hmmm. Shoot the copywriter and the PR team, the spin-o-meter just hit 11. But let’s give the folk in the Googleplex a chance – they’ve done some pretty cool things in the past.
Does Google+ succeed in its attempt to make online sharing as close to real-life sharing as humanly possible? It employs the same basic principles as Facebook in that it is a social networking platform which enables connection and contact with peers, colleagues and family. Google+ is integrated with Gmail which integrates seamlessly with most major mail systems so all your contacts are already there.
One of the major drawbacks of Facebook is that unless you painstakingly go through your friends and individually limit their access to your profile, there is no real filter in what you share. If your mum has a Facebook account, she can access the photos of your best friend’s hen’s night – which, in all honesty, should probably remain out of her view, for eternity. In life, you modify your behaviour depending on who you’re communicating with – ie: you don’t use the same language with your gran as you would with a close friend.
To use a more common frustration, sometimes you don’t want your professional network mixing with your personal.
The Google+ ‘Circles’ feature enables you to choose precisely what information you share and with whom.
You can set your relatives apart from your friends and work colleagues by putting them into different Circles that get unique streams of information. You can name or label your Circles and add whoever you want to each one; the relationships can also be one way, so you can receive shares without sharing back.
In addition to Circles, there’s ‘Hangouts’ – a way of hanging out with particular people or entire Circles using face-to-face chat technology. Kind of like having a conference call via video hook up with your mates/colleagues/family. Given the terrible turn Skype has taken with its pop-up windows and ad fields (is that the Microsoft effect?), this looks to be a winner.
The ‘Huddle’ utility is designed to save you time by turning all those individual conversations you would have with a group (for example, organising a weekend getaway with friends) into one simple group conversation, keeping everyone on the same page and in the loop, saving your thumbs from writing multiple messages. Probably useful in the odd situation.
Another feature is ‘Sparks’. Sparks functions not dissimilarly to StumbleUpon whereby you enter what subjects interest you and Google finds stuff online pertaining to those interests for you to peruse when you’re not ‘hanging out’ or maintaining your Circles. Nice to have this one on the one platform and, seeing as Google owns searchland, you’re going to have a pretty good chance of finding what you want.
So there you have it – these are the functions that set Google+ aside from other social networking communities. Feeling compelled to harass your mates into leaving Facebook?
The jury is still out on adaptability of Google+ in terms of personalisation. The achingly slow journey of Facebook to allow purpose designed pages for business or event use is still fresh in our minds. For now, Google+ is only available to individuals but Google has plans to launch Google+ for Business later this year. A look at the concept for a Google+ Business page and its pretty clear that the pages will offer similar functionality to that of Facebook again. The amount of freedom users have in terms aesthetics and making a page look how you like, is somewhat limited at this stage, for businesses or humans.
Let’s talk demographics. With the average age of Facebook users hovering around 32-35, who is going to use Google+? I have friends who have either never jumped on the Facebook bandwagon or have had Facebook accounts and then deleted them because they don’t like the idea of having so much personal information stored online. These people are talking about signing up to Google+. Do they realise that the two sites are essentially the same thing and that instead of your personals being available to Marky-Z, all your information is accessible to Google Inc.?
Privacy will always be a serious online issue. Recently, the Germans banned Facebook like buttons on privacy grounds. History records Google’s issues when it comes to sharing information. Just last year, Google Buzz became a privacy embarrassment due to how it interacted with Gmail (don’t forget, Google+ will be hooked into Gmail too). Google has also been in trouble for unintentionally collecting passwords, emails and instant messages from home Wi-Fi networks using its Street View vans. Oopsy! To be fair though, of all the abovementioned blunders Google has faced of late, Google+ appears to be the most cautious and well thought out.
While most facets of a Google+ user’s profile can be as confidential as he or she likes, Google’s terms affirm that a person’s full name and gender will be made public, with no alternative to hide this information. This is plainly stated on the ‘public profiles‘ section of the Google+ website where it reads:
“The purpose of Google Profiles is to enable you to manage your online identity. Today, nearly all Google Profiles are public. We believe that using Google Profiles to help people find and connect with you online is how the product is best used. Private profiles don’t allow this, so we have decided to require all profiles to be public. Keep in mind that your full name and gender are the only required information that will be displayed on your profile; you’ll be able to edit or remove any other information that you don’t want to share.”
So if Google can work out a way of maintaining all the hip new features of Google+ in a non-invasive way and keeping our private information private, than this might be the first realistic alternative to rival the Book of Face. As I said earlier – time will tell. Personally, I don’t see a real need for yet another networking site such as this and to be perfectly honest, I think that Google is trying too hard. Instead of having fingers in all the online pies, why not stick to the realms of searching and email where they are the undisputed leaders of the pack? What’s next Google? Google TV? Google breakfast cereal?
“Facebook Fires Back at Google” – AdNews 24/08/2011
In a bid to keep up with the added functionality of Google+, Facebook has initiated a number of modifications to its interface that aim to combat the escalating threat of Google+.
The changes mean Facebook users can preview images they are tagged in before they are displayed to their friends. Also users are able to view who can see content on their profiles.