First Thoughts about Google+

If you haven’t heard about it, Google+ is Google’s new foray into social networking after a few disappointments in-between. For all its world domination-like qualities, a lot of Google products haven’t fallen flat recently, and its new Facebook competitor (as described by The Times) has the same sort of possibly ephemeral feel, but I think Google should be feeling lucky about this one.

I consider myself a late adopter. I like to pay attention to new technology, but because I’m cynical, cheap, and comfortable with what I have, I’m usually not too pumped up about things until I see how other people have used it to some benefit. This mentality even affects how I view entire movements as I’m still not too keen on social networking as a whole. I check Facebook daily but probably won’t write but a handful of times over a year (not counting my birthday). I just don’t think its added that much value to my life.

What is Facebook good for? Honestly? Stalking. Especially right now as I’m curious what all my friends are doing post-college. It’s a lot of work to go through the typical wall post and comment exchange to ask questions that they might be embarrassed addressing in a public setting anyways. I just hope that they’ve updated their education or work history in their profile.

So why am I optimistic about Google+? Because it’s actually kind of nice. At first, the set of available components seems like an odd mish-mash, but when I think about what I want, it actually seems to kind of work, without all the junk.

First, it forces you to put all connections into various circles. Presumably, one can “Facebook” it and just put everyone in one circle, but it’s actually kind of nice to have these divisions in place: it matches my real life social life. My family in Toronto probably doesn’t care about a local event on Stanford campus, but a greater proportion of my close friends do.

Interestingly, this feature is already available in Facebook, but as I discussed with some of my friends in a “Hangout” (spoiler: good words to come), they just didn’t hit it quite right. For me, maybe Facebook can do all of this, but when they added it, I had no desire to filter through hundreds of friends and put them in the right place. Ultimately, it’ll be more work to connect with all of my friends again in Google+, but it feels a lot more natural and necessary. Just like in humor, timing is everything in technology.

A big aspect of Google+ seems to be that the site is built around a lot of external content. Of the 4 buttons at the top, one is devoted to photos (which seem to be automatically collected from Google services like Picasa and Blogger), and the “Share” box in the upper right allows one to always share pictures, videos, links, and their location. “Spark” is a discovery tool for content. To me, it feels like Google+ is built entirely around external topics.

Again, yes, Facebook has all of this, but the culture has very much turned to a focus on wall-to-wall posts and status updates, and frankly, I don’t care that much. For me, it’s amusing to a point, but the most interesting things are about interesting links people come across and want to discuss. My friend George has posted a few interesting links to Politico, and so far, I’ve liked seeing it.

In fact, I like it enough that I’ve considered switching over from my 4 years of delicious usage to simply posting links to Google+. For me, there are basically 4 rough groups of things that I bookmark in delicious, and I think my need for delicious is diminishing:

  1. Recipes. I mark these as private to avoid spamming my friendfeed (and subsequently my fb), but I’ve got quite a few from food blogs. Even so, I have a replacement ready for whenever I stop procrastinating
  2. To Read links. This could easily be done in my actual bookmarks in my browser
  3. Reference. Delicious is still the best for this, in my opinion, but the alternatives aren’t significantly worse.
  4. Interesting stuff. Keep reading

I have been bookmarking interesting stuff for years now because I think I might refer back to it, but to be honest, the list of things I’ve gone back to is very short. In fact, in the history of my delicious usage, I can really only think of one thing that I’ve gone into delicious for, and that’s just because it was at the moment easier than searching for it. And nowadays, search is so good, I might as well just try to find it again if it comes to mind. Otherwise, I really just mark them because I would like others to see it, which is why my delicious is linked to my friendfeed, which is linked to my fb. And Google+ does that great.

It’s possible that simply right now, I like Google+’s offering of interesting links simply because my set of friends there is better (well, more immediately interesting to me, let’s say) than my friends on fb, and the apparent filtering of content is a strange product of that. That probably builds off of my smugness of exclusivity being on invite to Google+ and having most of my currently closest friends on it too thanks to a close Google-Stanford connection. Even so, I like to think that’ll smooth out too, since Circles can keep me feeling as though I’m in my ivory tower for as long as necessary.

The final component I want to discuss is hangout, which is simply awesome. Basically, it’s group video chat where friends can come go as they please. There are two big aspects to this. First, it’s group video chat. And it works and isn’t hard to use or setup. That fact alone is great.

Second, friends can come and go. It’s casual, and it’s fun. Most of us are sitting at our computers for large parts of the day anyways: we might as well drop in and chat for awhile. Earlier tonight, I hoped in a hangout with a few friends, including George, who is currently across the country. I’ve IMed with him, but I probably would’ve never gotten around to calling him on the phone, even though I know he’s on his computer a lot even still. But we both joined a hangout, and it was like he was sitting in the same room as me. Trust me: the idea for hangout may not sound that revolutionary, but it just works so well with how I want to interact with my friends.

The kicker in it is a built-in youtube watching mode where you and your friends can all watch a youtube video together. That feature is just as good as you can imagine.

To the Google+ developers: please build in an embedded shared browser for hangout, too. When I saw the youtube button, I wondered whether it supported shared screen as well, but today, especially with Chromebooks, internet browser sharing would be just as good. Surfing the web together would be tons of fun, and being able to support webapps inside hangout is probably as good as, if not better, than the fb platform. It means that every existing web application is “ported” into Google+, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities for building games into Google+.

Okay, so it might be late now, and I might be a little tired, wild-eyed, and almost 2 hours past my bedtime from the past 2 weeks. Even so, I’m optimistic about this. I’ve been on Facebook for 5 years and never really gotten into it. In 2 days, Google+ has showed me some innovative, but intuitive and pleasantly good features that make me want to use the internet differently. It might not have all the wingdings that Facebook has built in over the years, but I like to think we’re past most of that. I don’t know how to make the equivalent of a wall-to-wall post, but I haven’t wanted it yet. There doesn’t appear to be Events, but I have always kind of disliked Facebook events (I pretty much disregard them nowadays, except as an announcement, which can be done more efficiently). Anyways, huddle as group texting and sharing within circles can do it, too.

So yes, I’m optimistic, and even more so than before I started writing. There’s the question about whether I would use this instead of Facebook, and reviewing this post about every Facebook feature/culture aspect that dislike and how Google+ has managed to improve on it, I think I’m already a convert.

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