I’ve come very close to shutting down my personal Facebook account lately. The only reason I haven’t is because of the presence of various podcasts and websites that are essentially linked to my personal profile. I’m becoming more and more frustrated with having to divide my attention between half a dozen social networks that are supposed to leverage my time but, ironically, end up consuming far too much of it.
This post will detail my initial impressions with Google Plus (written as Google+) given my very limited exposure.
I like to maintain connections with certain people that I consider ‘close acquaintances’, but I hate having to maintain groups that are buried deep within a cloudy privacy matrix so I can limit what I share and who I share it with — and I despise having to determine whether a request for a connection is ‘worthy’ of an approval. For that reason, my Facebook profile has about as much personality as Mark Zuckerberg himself. It’s dry, baron and lifeless. But I need to keep it.
Facebook has become the social sewer of my life. I don’t care who’s checked into a gym, who has changed their picture profile or who’s drinking a cup of coffee; and the interesting posts (from interesting people) are usually lost in the streaming cesspit of irrelevance. Has Facebook evolved into the new MySpace? It’s beginning to feel as such.
Here’s a link to a video on Bloomberg that details some of the unscrupulous tactics Facebook has used in changing their privacy settings over the years. It’s a 45-minute documentary and the relevant sections are towards the end of the program.
Google Buzz was something I trialled but wasn’t ever comfortable using because it was so closely connected with something as personal as my email. Google, famous for its drawn our beta programs, released Buzz without the necessary scrutiny by a limited group or passionate early adopters that would have highlighted serious privacy flaws. The platform just didn’t work. My primary concern with Buzz was that the automated opt-in service decided to indiscriminately share my private connections based on their algorithmic assumptions. I don’t care that Google has a mountain of my private data – but I take serious offence when they decide to share any of it with somebody else. As far as I’m concerned, Buzz seriously undermined my trust in Google’s apparent stance on privacy.
The Wave Protocol
Google’s awesome Wave platform was a massive success in that the platform adapted some brilliant “push” technologies – but it was a failure in that nobody wanted to use it. Wave creator, Lars Rasmussen (a gentleman that I was fortunate enough to meet when he worked in Sydney’s Google office), left Google for Facebook in late 2010 after they killed his product… so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing some Google-Wave-esque style of innovation in the Facebook platform that are default offering in the brand new Google Plus.
Twitter has been the one constant in my online social world. It is what it is. It’s uncluttered by the plethora of privacy controls that are a necessity in a bigger platform and its simplicity means that it can be used in a variety of ways (that I don’t need to go into). In the end, though, not much is accomplished on Twitter besides receiving a push of information that’ll direct me elsewhere.
The list feature within Twitter has helped me manage and categorise users more efficiently, but it’s hard work intermittently adding a user to a particular list as an afterthought. As such, my lists are poorly maintained despite the fact they represent my primary timeline.
When I do post a message to Twitter, it can be seen by the entire Twittersphere… meaning that I can’t share subject specific information to the groups of people that may actually want to read it. I have people follow me because they’ve chosen to do so on the basis of a Twitter link on one of my many websites. If they follow me because they’ve found my link on a tech or finance podcast, does that mean that they should be subjected to my aviation rants? I’ve just joined a political podcast and have a number of people follow me because they expect some sort of insight into Aussie politics… except I don’t talk politics online. My high-and-mighty aviation rants are generally a focus many people don’t want to hear. If only I could broadcast to selective social circles!
Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoy the collaborative nature of Twitter; what it doesn’t do for me within the timeline is directed into the real world… and no less than two dozen professional connections have been made because of a relationship that has evolved in the Twitterverse. Twitter conversations are far too linear, fragmented, short… and often buried deep within an irrelevant timeline to yield anything other than an initial connection. The real world does the rest.
Introducing Google Plus
Google Plus, released last week, is the newest entrant to the social networking scene. What follows are my first and rather incomplete impressions of the platform.
The last person you want designing a social platform is a computer geek whose idea of a rambunctious Friday night consists of pizza and Dungeons and Dragons. Geeks don’t design great user interfaces because they expect a high degree of computer literacy from the end user… and they’re often a little socially awkward (anecdotally, anyhow). Part of the reason Wave didn’t work is because it was far too difficult for your average user to navigate. I have a rule in computing: If my father can’t understand it, nobody will. Teaching him to cut and paste some simple text was like watching a monkey use a tool for the first time. He’s an extremely intelligent guy but his poor online literacy is an affliction shared by your average user. Google geeks were aware of this online impairment after Wave failed to make a splash so they approached psychiatrists, anthropologists and human behaviour experts to help them emulate the lives of real people on a computer screen. Not an easy task…. but I think they’ve done it.
The first – and very differentiating element – of Plus is a feature called Circles. Circles are designed to emulate social circles in our real social lives, and they’re used to filter our contacts into an appropriate category so we can selectively share information with particular groups of people the same way we would in real life. Accomplishing and managing our contacts into an appropriate category from within Facebook is nothing short of a chore – yet the same can be achieved from within Plus in seconds. The drag and drop interface is simple enough that my Dad can do it without an education but complex enough in terms of functionality to satisfy somebody as critical as me. It’s simple and effective. Barney Stinsen would call in Simplective (bad How I Met Your Mother reference).
I share information with family, friends, work colleagues and so on very selectively on Plus – and people that choose to include me within one of their own circles will do the same. The user you add to a circle doesn’t know what circle he or she is in. This works well but relies on a mutual understanding between people that they won’t compromise on the value of the information they choose to share with the social circle you’re in. I don’t want random acquaintances to share pictures of their 2-year-old eating spaghetti with me but I’d like to see those pictures if they were my nephew.
There is some criticism regarding the circle because a user within a circle can share your post with people outside of it… a somewhat self defeating principle. The person sharing the information is prompted to be considerate before sharing somebody else’s information – but since when has that measure of mutual respect applied to social media? You have the option of preventing others from sharing your information at post time if you’re sober enough to be aware of the consequences, but it seriously pollutes the functionality of circles for those that aren’t tech savvy to understand what they’re doing.
You soon get a feel for who has chosen to include you within a social circle (of importance) by the amount of information that makes its way into your social timeline. If you’re aware that you’ve been added to a circle, but you fail to see any of that person’s updates, it’s likely that the other user is simply inactive… or they’ve chosen to include you within a group that’s excluded from the majority of their updates. As socially awkward as it may feel by including people within an outside circle, the ability to selectively share is the cornerstone of Google’s product.
Plus One Button
A feature of Google Plus that you’ll start to see popping up over the web is the Plus One button. Not unlike Facebook’s ‘like’ button, Plus One serves as a means of promoting good content to others, as well as serving as a quasi-bookmarking service. The +1 button will also serve to promote search content and customise experiences in other Google offerings (most notably search).
My own sites will all get their own +1 button over coming days.
The look and feel of the front page is not unlike a naked Facebook (minus the adverts, add-ons and fluff). The trademark Facebook blue is replaced by the typically bland white and Google grey. No doubt the page will fill up with fluff as Google introduces other modules and developers introduce custom applications. Since Google is ultimately in the advertising business, we can probably expect a plethora of adverts plastered all over the page sometime in the future as well.
Ease of Use
Both Buzz and Wave make a lot more sense now than they did when they were first released because the Plus platform seemingly integrates the best of both technologies from both “failures”. The entire screen is essentially AJAX driven via real-time “push” technology meaning that virtually every task can be completed without venturing from one page to another.
Doesn’t Microsoft’s purchase of Skype make more sense now that it’s the default plugin for Facebook video chat? Google’s video messaging has undergone trial by way of Google Talk… and the Talk functionality integrated with Plus opens up enormous opportunity to turn the platform into a true repository for more traditional modes of communication.
Critcism of Google Plus
The Google+ Android application is brilliant. Like every application that comes out of the Google factory it seems to be a marriage made in electron heaven. It’s simple, functional and very easy to use. However, it was the mobile application that caused me to question some features that exposed security issues of concern.
From the primary screen, clicking ‘Stream’ launches the Facebook-style social stream we’re all quite use to seeing. Swiping left, however, triggered the phone to acquire my location, and then displayed a stream of ‘nearby’ people and their status updates tagged with their location… their exact location. I can see how this could be a magnificent feature at events and conferences (negating the need, to an extent, for hash tags) but it could quite easily be used as a tool by baddies. Unknowingly having this feature switched on could potentially cause problems.
When I registered for Plus, I did so using email attached to my primary Google account that virtually nobody knows – and one that I very rarely use. When I went to add my primary email, I couldn’t because it was attached to another Google account. The ability to use an email that is connected to another Google accounts so others can find me is a little more than annoying. Like Facebook, there’s no option to merge profiles.
One of the benefits of Twitter is the ability to follow a list that another user creates. It’s a great way of discovering new users without having to actually look for them. I could see the benefit in sharing circles although I understand it’s contrary to the ethos and technical nature of categorising individual social circles.
I don’t like the domain name: plus.google.com. Again, it’s something that would confuse my dad. Google likes to include everything under its Google brand… but in terms of a social networking site I think it’s important we have something different.
The majority of criticism relates to features we’ll likely see implemented. Very little of it has to do with what’s already there.
Overall, Google Plus is the best example of selective social networking I’ve ever seen. It has the social feel of both Twitter and Facebook dished up on a wave-centric platform while providing the best example of real life sharing with the use of Circles. The enjoyment I get from the platform has a lot to do with the passionate early adopters that are more likely to share information of value than the generation-Y jerks that feel the need to share every time they take their morning constitutional. The wonderful thing is: even if generation ‘careless’ were active users and continued posting the crap we’re use to seeing on Facebook (and let’s face it, for Plus to get the saturation it deserves they’re an essential user-base for the platform), I can filter them into a circle of contacts removed from higher-quality contacts.
Google+ is fast. Real fast. Unlike Twitter, replies are instant, linear and you won’t have to go looking for them in a cluttered timeline. Twitter wasn’t designed for conversation and, as such, doesn’t really work.
Google Plus is awesome and it’s quickly become the single platform I’m actually comfortable sharing on. Whether it has life beyond passionate early adopters is very much an unknown. Time will tell.
You can befriend me on Google+ by searching for me with my Gmail address of martykhoury [at] gmail [dot] com.
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