Inside The Social Circle
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(Note: At the time of writing, the service is restricted and you'll need somebody to invite you to get onto the service at plus.google.com. If you need an invite, try broadcasting this on ‘other' social networks – it works!)
The Home Screen: Once you get past the minor formalities of creating a profile, Plus presents you with a Home screen which is largely dominated by what Google calls the Stream. It's similar to a Facebook-style newsfeed – some would say it is too similar to Facebook. In many ways, while the interface does take some getting used to, it is less of a departure from the known landscape of social media than say Google Wave was from email. Overall, the design is clean and simple, with the navigation for the stream on the left and content front and center. I particularly like the Notifications view – you click on a notification on the top right of the screen, and instead of being taken to a new page like Facebook (disrupting what you're doing), the post loads within a small area of the screen and lets your act upon it there and then.
Circles: Circles is way you organise your contacts, and one of the immediate appeals for me was how easy it was to set up "circles" that match the natural patterns of real life. Say, one circle for immediate family, one for work chaps, one for "friends you actually know", another for "mere acquaintances who you can't shake off". Or by interest, drinking buddies, golfing group, Sunday morning walker's club… the possibilities are endless. And, just like in life, one person can be in more than one "circle". What is critical is that each time you share something in the stream – you can choose exactly who you want to share your content with. Choose certain people, certain circles, or make the post public – the choice is up to you, and the post reaches only those folks, no one else. Ah, privacy! This is technically possible via Facebook "lists" but is much more of a chore. I'd have to warn you – the cutesy manner in which you drag and drop contacts into circles is high on novelty but that wears off soon, and since Circles (and Plus on the whole) depends on Google Contacts from Gmail, you can very easily have years of poorly maintained contacts pulled into the service.
Sparks And Huddle: Google does pull in the whole set of Google services – Photos (Picasa), Chat into the Plus experience, and you can even use Sparks, essentially a refined version of Google search that enables you to access things of interest on a particular topic. Use the Google+ app on an Android phone, and you get access to a couple of more features, such as Huddle (instant messaging between mobiles, much like BBM and WhatsApp) and Instant Upload (instantly upload web-optimised photos to Google+ into a private Picasa album, ready to share).
Hangout: Possibly one of Plus' most unique features is Hangout, which allows group video chat with up to 10 participants, but only via Google+ on the desktop (not mobile…yet). All you do is start a hangout on your Plus account, which indicates you're free to video chat with anyone who cares to drop in. Or you could join a hangout in progress in your network. No awkward preamble of SMSing or email to figure out whether or not someone is free to Skype or use FaceTime. And it blows Facebook's 1-to-1 video chat, just announced this week, out of the water in both video quality and the sheer ability to video chat with more than 1 person at a time. In addition, Google+ has integrated a feature that allows a group of friends to watch content from youtube.com together – awesome to spice up any conversation! I will just go ahead and say it. Hangouts is the killer feature of Google+, and will appeal not only to small groups of friends but also small business who cannot afford professional video-conferencing solutions and depend
Google+ Quick Tips: There is a lot about Google+ that will appeal to the inner geek in you, which I'd add isn't necessarily a good thing. There's still no clean way to achieve basic stuff – for example, you can make any text (a part of whole of your post) bold by adding a "*" before and after it, and italics are achieved by placing a "_" before and after the text. If you find many of your contacts sharing the same post over and over again – the network is small and some posts go viral really quick – you can actually mute a particular post, if you don't want to be bothered with the constant notifications. Simply left click on the post, hit Mute this post! And the last tip, quite often a life saver, is that you can not only decide who gets to see your post (via Circles) but you can even disable sharing of your post by using the Disable comment and Disable reshare options for each post. No longer do your family vacation pics get unintentionally shared out to other networks without your express permission!
Verdict: Google+ is in no way a reinvention of the social wheel, then again maybe it isn't even needed to be. While I like the Circles and Hangout feature, the service is very clearly not ready for the primetime, and will need to take several big strides, (including launching for their enterprise Google apps customers and making the mobile app available on more platforms) in both features and maturity before it can truly challenge Facebook on its home turf.
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