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Google+ a social project ready to invade Facebook Land?

Google | Getty

Google | Getty

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:29AM



Google+ wasn’t released this week so much as it was simply revealed out of necessity, as its first wave of testers were allowed to activate their accounts. Google isn’t even describing it as a Product; instead, it’s a “Project,” indicating that they’re just conducting some live-fire exercises to see how civilians might approach and use some of these social-networking ideas the company has come up with.

The bullet features of this Project include Hangouts, Sparks, and Circles. Hangouts is a simple but interesting twist on group video chat. In the “room,” there are live thumbnails for everybody and Google+ senses who has the “lead” in the conversation on the fly. Ideally, it’ll be like you and your friends in a loose cluster at a party, drifting in and out of a group conversation. Potentially, it could be like one of those horrible conference-call meetings where the only person who ever gets heard is the one prone to talk faster and more loudly than everybody else.

Sparks seems like a conceptual evolution of some of Google Reader’s features for finding content based on blogs you’ve already subscribed to. Preload Sparks with your interests and it’ll start amassing “clippings” from the Web that it thinks will interest you. Hopefully, they’ll be of interest to your friends as well, and you’ll share them.

Which brings us to the core make-or-break feature of Google+:

(Already, I doubleplus hate that plus sign. If Google keeps the name, then I foresee many months of fighting the autocorrect features of all of my word processors. Those apps realize that a sentence that ends with a plus sign makes no sense, and flags it as an obvious mistake that should be immediately corrected. Those apps therefore show much more common sense than the people who decided to go with “Google+” as the new service’s name.)

(Sorry. That’s my problem, not yours.)

(Continuing.)

Which brings us to the core make-or-break feature of Google+: Circles. This is the mechanism by which you manage and organize the people in your social circle. Or, more appropriately, social circles. Circles makes it easy to build custom groups of people and thus allows you to carefully fine-tune your sharing. Example: it’s your turn at the karaoke mic during the company barbecue and you belt out an actually quite wonderfully loose and soulful version of “Kozmic Blues” in what can accurately be scored as a duet with Mr. Jose Cuervo. The next day, you can share the video with your coworkers (who’ve been asking for copies), your friends (who always knew you had a great voice) your immediate family (who will appreciate seeing you unwinding and enjoying yourself) but not your extended family (who haven’t seen you regularly since your cousin’s First Communion party, during which you stole two beers from the grownups’ cooler and then returned it an hour later all over the cake.

I already see many improvements over Facebook. Google+ duplicates many of Facebooks’ features, but makes things like “groups of friends” into a simple, accessible, and intuitive way of sharing items, instead of a complicated Power Feature. Personal privacy is still a sticky issue to navigate, but at least Google+ seems to have been built with the philosophy that people are worried about that stuff. Facebook’s company attitude should be “Everything should be shared and visible, unless the user decides to kick and fuss about it.”

And let’s applaud Google for creating a genuinely elegant user interface. The mechanism for creating and maintaining Circles is beautiful; it’s an impressive piece of webcraft. Overall, Google+ seems to indicate that the company has at long last tracked, shot and killed whoever it is in the front office who made sure that that every Google product and service should be optimized for a computer with a 486 processor running Windows 95 and accessing the Internet via dialup. Facebook, despite lots of effort, continues to be a gobstopping mess.

But the main attraction of Google+ is its integration into your normal habits. Facebook has been mostly useless to me largely because it forces me to leave the real world and travel to FacebookWorldLand to do damned-near anything.

Every time a security checkpoint at a public event makes me hand over the sealed liter of bottled water I bought for $1.79 at a 7-11 outside the venue, I know it isn’t about security. It’s about the $4.99 12-ounce bottles they’re selling inside. That’s how I feel every time I sign into Facebook and leave my familiar tools and resources behind. Facebook is greedy. It wants me to learn its language, use its currency, and submit to a search at the border during which I’m forced to jettison anything that the King of FaceBookWorldLand has decided will jam up the gears of empire.

I suppose you could say that Google’s online presence is itself so big and so all-encompassing that this thing I so glibly call “the real world” is actually Googlestadt. And now, Emperor Doom has given us all a free, powerful new mechanism for sharing everything we see and read and like with our fellow subjects.

Er, yes. It does occur to me that it’s bad to allow the Emperor to scrutinize our daily habits and interactions even more closely than he already can.

(But this public street is no place for such talk. Come, into this alleyway, Dmitri. Quickly.)

Google will indeed be following your Google+ activity closely. They’ll use this information to enhance their ability to improve the results of your Web searches (hoorah!) and increase the advertising value of your personal profile and target you with ads (sonofa…). Well, the six letters in front of the plus sign should have been the dead giveaway. That’s their business. They were going to be doing that anyway, so long as you were planning to use Google services.

The point is that I can use Google+ and retain the feeling that I’m out on the real Web, doing anything I want to do. Their social networking services are also wired into every other Google service, including Search, Reader, Documents, and Picasa. Mobile apps allow me to access those features from wherever.

You can’t just stroll into a speakeasy and get Google+ today. It’s by invite-only, and the word is that even if you already got an invite, you might not be given a slot in the test program until Google has figured out how to accommodate the users they already have. But you can visit http://plus.google.com/ to see some video demos that are at turns compelling and so bizarrely conceptual that they look like Dharma Initiative training videos.

Besides, none of these features really mean anything today. Google+ is missing two key components: people and time. Social networks must struggle until they build a big enough membership that a random signee is likely to find enough friends in there to make it worth his or her while. Not even Google can speed that process up.

Most critically, Twitter and Facebook’s successes demonstrate that you can’t just roll out a social networking service and then sit back to await your tea and medals. It only develops into a relevant set of features after months and years of sending plates out of the kitchen and seeing what the customers send back. Then you make adjustments and try again. Through this slow, stubborn process are indispensable online tools made.

Even then, you need to give users time to define a role for the service in their lives. I love Twitter. Today, as I stand just shy of 50,000 followers, I can’t imagine getting by without it. But I went through two false starts with Twitter before I stopped mocking it and started to see where I could use this tool in my personal and professional life. All of the features were right there, you understand . . . but the instincts about how and where to use them effectively came only through months of trial and error.

When Google+ opens wide -- maybe next year, maybe never -- I’m certain, hopeful, even, that it’ll be many steps evolved from what I’m seeing today.

But please, Google: give Google+ and its users more time than you allowed for Google Wave to establish itself. And for God’s sake, do something about the plus sign at the end of its name.



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