A few people have asked me what this Google+ business is all about. I’ve written this post to provide a introduction to the basics of the service. I will also be detailing some of the ways that I think it stacks up to Facebook, which is its major competitor.
What is Google+?
Google+ is a social network, like Facebook or Twitter. At its core, most of its functionality is indistinguishable from what Facebook does, but it presents these features in a very different way.
The Core Concept: Circles
On Facebook you have “friends“, which you can organize into “friend lists“. Facebook allows you to selectively share information with friend lists, but most people do not go through the trouble of creating them. Even Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, acknowledged this, famously saying that “nobody wants to make lists.”
“Circles” are the core concept of Google+. They are basically the same as friend lists, except that Google+ essentially makes them mandatory. Instead of adding friends and then maybe putting them into lists, you make circles and then tell Google+ who you want to be in them. It is technically possible to use Google+ without using circles, but Google+ makes that relatively hard (most significantly by only showing updates from contacts who you have placed in circles in your Stream).
Why all the fuss over circles? Circles are all about privacy. You can interact and share information with one, some, or all of your circles. The idea is that, instead of sharing everything with all of your friends, you’ll only share with the people who ought to be seeing it. When you create a Google+ account, it comes with four circles – Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following. The idea is that there are things you might want to share with your friends or family that you might not want people you’re less familiar with (acquaintances) to see. There might even be people that you don’t want to share anything with, but you want to see what they’re sharing – that’s what the Following circle is for. For instance, I don’t know Bill Gates (and I don’t want to share all the details of my personal life with him), but I would like to hear about his charity work, so he goes in Following.
Of course, you can create more circles. I have a circle for students and faculty at my alma mater (go Timberwolves!) and another circle for my wife’s friends in her Master’s program. Whenever I share something, I have to ask myself which circles ought to see it. Circles aren’t magic – Google won’t automatically put the Timberwolves-related posts in the correct circle. You are the only person who gets to decide what gets shared with whom.
It’s also important to note that your circles’ names are private. This makes it a lot easier to sort your contacts without hurting any feelings. By default, your contacts can see whether or not you have added them to at least one circle – i.e. it will say “You are in Christopher Scott’s circles”, but not which circles I’ve added you to. If you want, you can even decide not to show that information.
The Central Feature: Stream
Stream is almost identical to the Facebook News Feed. It shows you what people in your circles have been doing. Of course, you’ll only see the posts that you have permission to see, and if one of your contacts doesn’t have you in a Circle then you’ll only see their public posts. Take Bill Gates again; shockingly, I am not in any of his circles. That means I’ll get Bill’s public posts about his charity work, but not the posts where he’s making dinner plans with Melinda and the kids.
You can sort your Stream by Circle, so if you just want to see what your Friends Circle has been up to, that’s easy. Also, like Twitter, connections on Google+ can be asymmetrical – I can see your stuff (if you have me in a Circle) even if I’m not sharing with you. Facebook actually works the same way nowadays, although most people aren’t aware of it.
The difference between Stream and Facebook’s News Feed is that Google+ profiles do not have walls. Interaction between users always goes to the central Stream, and not to an individual’s wall. In this way, Google+ acts more like Twitter than Facebook. If you want to talk to someone, either create a post that only they have permission to see (a la a direct message), or tag them in a post that others can see. This takes some getting used to, and it’s my wife’s biggest complaint about Google+.
That Cool New Feature: Hangouts
This is (in my opinion) the most distinctively new feature of Google+. A Hangout is a video chat that anyone (within an authorized Circle) can join. It’s simple enough – I create a Hangout and share it with my Friends Circle. My friends then see an item in their Stream saying that I am hanging out, and giving them an option to join. Up to 10 people can join a Hangout.
It sounds strange until you try it. Like the rest of Google+, it’s not so much a technological innovation as it is a social one. A physical analogy might be two friends sitting in a coffee shop. Any other friends who are passing by can see you and even stop by to chat (of course, on Google+ you’re invisible to passers-by who aren’t your friends). This element of spontaneity is quite engaging if you have some free time to kill.
Extra Features: Sparks, Huddle and Instant Upload
In addition to the core, big-ticket functionality discussed above, Google+ offers a few other novel features that are worth noting.
Sparks is sort of like an integration of Google News (and maybe Google Blog Search) with the main Google+ offering. Its goal is to help you find stuff that you’ll want to read and maybe even share. It works as follows: You tell Google+ your interests. Google+ then shows you articles from the web that deal with those interests. You can read them and share them. It’s that simple.
The idea is that this differs from Facebook Connections (where you like bands and businesses and concepts and whatnot) in that it pulls from a broader set of data. Instead of getting information about your favourite band from one source (the band’s Facebook page), you get it from the entire web. So… that’s nice, I guess.
Huddle is a mobile group messaging platform, like BBM. It’s in direct competition with Facebook Messages on mobile platforms, which never really took off. Basically, it lets you message groups of your Google+ contacts from your phone, using data instead of text messages. Unlike Facebook, there doesn’t appear to be a non-mobile interface to Huddle.
Instant Upload is an Android-only feature. If you turn it on, every photo (and video) that you take with your Android device automatically gets uploaded to Google+. By default, all such photos and videos are private until you share them with your circles (or the public Internet). This feature is intended to ease the burden of pulling photos and video off of your mobile device and onto your computer by skipping the computer entirely.
What does Facebook Have that Google+ Doesn’t?
From the above, it’s clear that Google+ improves on Facebook in a few ways. There are also ways in which it lags behind. I’m sure there are many other points of differences between the two services, but here are the ones that I’ve noticed.
Facebook Messages is certainly more feature-rich than Huddle (in that it combines BBM-style group chat, texting, e-mail and IM into one service). Then again, hardly anyone uses its enormous breadth.
Facebook Places allows you to check in to locations with a comment and, after the fact, it allows you to post photos. Google+ does allow you to check in, but it’s a much simpler action. You just tap the check-in button, confirm the location and the circles you want to share with, and you’re done. No attaching photos, at least on the web client – I’ve heard that you can add photos to check-ins via the Android app.
Sharing on Facebook allows you to change the title and description text of a shared link, whereas Google+ does not. As a result, many links can have hilariously bad auto-generated descriptions. I use Facebook’s editing capabilities a lot, but it seems that most people don’t, so this might not matter much.
Facebook Events and Facebook Pages don’t presently have any equivalent in Google+. Pages-style profiles are apparently coming soon, but I’ve heard no word on Events. Perhaps a Google Calendar integration will be coming?
The Facebook Platform. Google+ is new and doesn’t have a public API yet. As a result, there are no apps. There is no Farmville, there are no quizzes, nothin’. No third-party development. That will change eventually, but for now it is a reality.
The Final Word: What’s the Point?
Google+ is a social experiment. In terms of technology, its core functionality is not very different from that of Facebook, but the way that it is presented is different. And, in social networking, presentation is everything.
Google+ solves the nobody-wants-to-make-friend-lists problem by making it incredibly hard not to do so. This isn’t a technological innovation, it’s a user interface innovation. They’re not changing the way the software works, they’re trying to change the way that we, the users, act. Specifically, they’re trying to draw privacy to the forefront of users’ minds with circles. In my opinion, they’re trying to change us for the better. The benefit of Google+ is a social network that encourages privacy from the beginning, by design.
Google+ attempts to use old technology to ask a new question – not only “what do you want to say?”, but also “with whom?” I’m excited to see whether Google+ can convince us all that answering the latter is worthwhile.