Google announced its new social strategy today: Google+. It’s made up of a couple of features, which I’ll tackle one at a time:
Circles: Google+’s approach to friends is that your friend group in real-life is divided into circles, and while you may enjoy sharing the latest “Yo dawg” jokes with your cousin Jimbob, your grandma may not find them as funny. Google+ allows you to create friend circles and share certain information with certain circles. I think that this was a direct attempt to remedy two of the most basic problems with Facebook: privacy and the fact that there seems to be no differentiation between Mary Jane, who’s a very very loose acquaintance that you wouldn’t notice missing if she fell in a volcano, and Jimmy, who once untied you from the railroad tracks despite an oncoming bullet train. I know many people that friend request literally every person that they have any social contact with, leaving them with tens of new friends after every college party. And these new “friends” get lumped in with their best friends – not exactly the best strategy. If social media is ever actually going to help you connect with your friends, it has to have some way of determining who they actually are, and Google+ seems to be trying to address this.
Hangouts: The next interesting feature that Google+ offers is the idea of Hangouts. The basic idea seems to be that, when you’re meeting up in real life, you can select other people or circles to invite to the hangout. It seems a bit like a version of foursquare without the game mechanics and with a stronger focus on social meet-ups than sweet deals at local businesses. The one thing that I really like about this feature is that it encourages face-to-face interaction. At least on college campuses, Facebook has largely replaced real-life interaction rather than facilitate it. This is the single feature that I like most about the preview of Google+, mostly because it seems an attempt to remedy my largest qualm with Facebook. Edit: I misunderstood originally what Google’s idea of a hangout was. It’s essentially a group video chat that you can invite groups of people to in hopes of encouraging random online meet-ups. I think it’s a cool idea, but I’m pretty disappointed that the focus is more on online interaction than face-to-face interaction.
Instant Upload / Sparks / Huddle: The last three features introduced today don’t seem particularly exciting to me. “Instant Upload” provides a way to instantly upload pictures and videos from your mobile devices to Google+ (Facebook has been doing this for a while now). “Sparks” seems a bit like a glorified StumbleUpon, suggesting websites to you that others with similar interests enjoyed. “Huddle” is essentially upgraded text-messaging where you can message groups of friends in some kind of cohesive manner. While Huddle is something that is doubtlessly needed (anyone who’s ever text-messaged large groups of people and tried to make sense of the replies knows this), it’s something that has been possible for years. The real problem is that not enough people are on a single platform to make that platform a viable replacement for text messages (except for Facebook, which apparently just didn’t see the niche). Until Google+ reaches critical mass, though, I don’t see Huddle being particularly useful.
Overall, Google+ seems like a much better planned social network than Buzz. With that being said, the largest problem for any social network is that in order for anyone to want to join, their friends have to be on the network in the first place. This is aptly called the “boil the ocean” problem – any application that needs to reach critical mass before becoming useful is a tough sell. In the end, I’m optimistic for Google+ – only time will tell how it fares against the likes of Facebook.