I have been tooling around on Plus, Google’s latest foray into social, for a couple days now. Plus is being sold as a social network competitor to Facebook, and the comparison makes some sense (and it’s illustrated hilariously by xkcd). There are equivalents to status updates, commenting, Likes, and posting content that mirror Facebook. But there’s a lot more to Plus than that. It has some of the best features of Twitter in that you can do things publicly but also group yourselves into different types of tribes (more on that in a second). It also has a reblogging feature that mirrors some of what is good about Tumblr.
But the backbone of Plus is essentially a salvo at Facebook’s glaring weakness: privacy and control of how you share. Enter the organizing tool for Plus known as “Circles.” The best way to describe it is that it’s a way to take all the people you connect with and put them in buckets that serve as categories. Then when you want to do a status update, share a post, and so forth, you can pick the circles who see the message. Or you could just enter one user’s profile (or even an email address) and thus it’s viewable only to them. Essentially they have integrated email and your news feed into the same space.
For those interested in my initial thoughts, check out the latest edition of the Interchange Project podcast I did with Patrick Thornton. In this post I’m going to sketch out some longer thoughts (also, feel free to subscribe to our podcast in iTunes – it’s a new thing I’m doing that covers tech and the liberal arts, would love more listeners).
My network on Facebook is super diverse, a mix of academic colleagues, college friends, family, and people from my youth. Sharing on Facebook has gotten more clunky for me over the years because, while you can put people in groups, it’s hard to share with more than one group at a time. Plus simplifies this process in a way that makes sense and is super intuitive; I can control the conversation a little more easily and limit access to particular posts to the Circles I want seeing it.
You even have the ability to keep people from sharing a post outside your circle. Obviously this doesn’t stop copy/paste, but this kind of granular control is great.
So that’s what’s similar. What’s different is so much more. They have a video conferencing feature called “Hangout” that lets you have group video chats on Plus. In addition (and this is huge) you can watch a video on YouTube or something similar while chatting together. Or in my case, snark at videos together. If only the MST3K guys had Plus. The video chat process is limited to 10 participants at a time, but it’s unbelievable how smooth and well thought out it is. This blows away the best collaborative tool Facebook has.
Google also has a lot of great products already in place, from Picasa, YouTube, Finance, and Gmail to little lab apps. The vision is that these things will all eventually connect to Plus. Right now, they’re integrated in seamless ways. When you share a photo on Plus, it is stored in Picasa, videos go to YouTube, and so forth. In that sense Plus is a nexus point for a lot of interesting and useful features Google already had. And the ones I didn’t use much (such as the +1 button) suddenly have a bigger meaning in the context of Plus.
Plus also has little things that, once you use them, make you wonder why Facebook doesn’t have them. Editing posts after you submit, editing comments, the ability to bold,ital, or
strikethrough text …. all there and part of the interface. You can use hotkeys to jump to the next post in your feed. You can upload GIF files, even animated ones! Simple stuff that people want.
I can envision all kinds of journalistic uses. The hangout feature could be used in newsrooms to have random chats with readers or as a tool for reporters and editors to talk. You can create circles by geography as well, meaning journalists can start curating circles of people who live within their own area. And of course news organizations can get in this space early and start making their brand visible.
As an educator, I see lots of uses. Facebook is a private space to me, and I don’t want to invade my students’ private space either, so I don’t use it in classes even though some of the tools such as Groups are interesting. The tools on Facebook are nice, but the privacy clunkiness keeps me from using them in any useful way. I taught a social change course last term that needed something collaborative and we had to piece it together; next time, we’ll just use Plus.
Plus also opens up new doors for interacting with students. I’m wondering whether hangout can be used to livestream classes, or we can have a circle for students in my classes for interactive discussions during class or even outside of class. With our baby coming next semester, I am planning on using Plus when I can for virtual office hours. This is where hangout has some cool potential. I could hold something like exam review online for 10 people at a time; rather than going over questions with them one at a time, they can all hear what I’m saying and benefit from it together.
I also like how I can discover people to Circle in a way that mirrors how it goes on Twitter, which is usually through discussions or when something is shared. When this happens on Facebook, I don’t even think to friend them because I have to think through whether I want them to see everything I post. With Circles I can friend them in a way that cordons them off from some of my posts. It is this mixture of public and private that is so intriguing about Plus, and Google simply has nailed it.
The burning question is whether Plus is worth it for people to join, especially if they already have Facebook and Twitter. I don’t see myself leaving Twitter any time soon because that is my true public face, but I can see this changing my Facebook habits a lot. I’ve spent very little time there the past couple days. Plus is going to be different for everyone; I have a lot of nerdy friends so I’m already up to 70 people in my Circles, but I have a lot of non tech friends who only have a few in their Circles. Obviously they are getting a different experience than mine, which has been lively and robust.
Regardless, G+ is a game-changer (and I don’t use that term very much with tech). At the very least it’s going to make Facebook innovate on privacy and built-in features. I’m sitting here trying to remember the last WOW thing that Facebook unveiled and think it has been a while. The hangout feature in Plus is definitely WOW, and it’s also super easy for the average user to start using right away.
There’s one other thing that should frighten Facebook as All Facebook noted in this post: Google may not have the user base on Plus that competes with Facebook’s 750 million users, but in aggregate it has a huge user base. The Google Bar that sits atop Plus has already started showing up for me in some other Google sites I use, most notably Mail. It’s coming to Blogger, Picasa, and all their other products. That means notifications are going to be ubiquitous for many people even if they’re not in Plus; Facebook can’t match that.
Plus is off to a great start and you should give it a try. None of us have invites but we’ve figured out ways to sneak people in the back door, most notably by having a Plus user share a story to your Gmail address. If you get one of these and are denied, keep trying. I’ve gotten about 7 people in this way.
Lastly, if you have any comments about Plus I’d love to hear them, particularly related to work and collaboration.
UPDATE: Word is that business pages definitely are coming to G+. That pretty much seals it. News organizations need to be in this space. While they haven’t launched, it would be a good idea for journalists to get in there now so they’re ready to go when pages do launch.