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Three Pluses For Google+
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Google could have been a social giant, not just a search giant. Instead, it went about botching up all its social properties: Orkut, Wave, and some others it acquired. Most famously, it started Buzz, which even now only a handful use, on the wrong foot, and without a compelling reason for users to adopt it in addition or instead of other options. With YouTube, Google had -- and still has -- a fantastic thing going, but it never leveraged it, social-wise. Apart from a firestorm over privacy, these properties just sat there, left to fend for themselves.
Facebook, on the other hand, came up with something new at least every month, keeping itself vibrant and active, if a little annoying.
All this led people to say Google just can't get social right and that it's all about algorithms and technology. We won't know until Google proves them wrong and connects people, not just pages, this time with its Google+ (also called Google Plus). Here's how they sum up what they aim to offer: "Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it. We'd like to bring the nuance and richness of real-life sharing to software."
But strictly speaking, Google hasn't yet launched a new social network. Google+ is a project, not competing with Facebook, they say, and not even open to all right now. They allowed some people to be part of the early group who will use it and give feedback, but within two days, closed it again as the number of users went overboard. I can see I have 500 invites to give out, but they don't actually work. Watch out for those you see being actually sold on eBay - those may well end up as dummy invites for now because the system itself has been closed to new users. Google did the same thing way back when they launched Gmail, and I hear they will be periodically letting more users in.
So, what makes us think Google will succeed this time, where it's flopped with many opportunities all this time? No one can predict how it will pan out. But Google does have three big pluses with which to work on its Google+.
Closer To The Real World
They figured out, a few months ago, that the current big fat social networks don't really mirror interaction in the real world. You don't have your boss peeking in o your chatter with your old college mates. You don't show off your new bar set to your company's customers. And you certainly don't share your ex boyfriend's pictures with your children. Or even the current one, for that matter.
You need to keep your social circles separate rather than make "fast food" of friendship, as Google says on its blog, taking an obvious dig at Facebook, though Facebook does have its closed groups and it has lists (which are too cumbersome to use). Google has addressed this whole issue with "Circles", which you can drag and drop people into, posting only to them when you want, seeing streams or news feeds from them, and chatting with them. One person can be part of multiple groups There are a few default groups to choose from but you can make your own. I'm going to try an Aunts I Mostly Avoid group and see how that works out. They've tried to take the hassle out of it by using a simple interface which has received a lot of praise, but I did feel a bit disoriented. That may be because my screens are not optimized to tackle this sort of page. In fact, it'll look best on a really large screen, in my opinion.
You can have large or little circles, even a circle of one, if you like. You don't have to bombard everyone with your posts, but target them carefully. Potentially, this could be great for business groups because you can share content more easily.
You can also message together in a Huddle, which is something maybe RIM can worry about, as the capability moves to Android phones. This should appeal to say, a group of friends wanting to quickly discuss where to go out to eat. You can actually do group video chat in another feature called Hangout, another core element of the network-to-be. Facebook may be incorporating video chat soon as well.
So, the first big plus is that the foundational concept makes sense. But now everything depends on being able to implement it well and making it compelling enough for people to try out and adopt. As many in the tech media are saying, if someone's happy enough with their Facebook, they won't have a big reason to get on to Google+ and add another network to the already noisy space we call our online world. I would say, it's early days yet. There's no point thinking about this when it isn't even a network yet, but an experiment. Not that it will remain so for very long. You can see the signs of Plus beginning to appear everywhere. And that brings us to the second big plus.
Integration With Everything Google
Google has the advantage of owning places you already use every day You'll find a new black navigation bar on top of all these, and it's from here that you'll be able to get to your + at any time. Always a click away. This time around, Google is obviously giving it everything it's got - and can't afford to get it wrong. Unlike Facebook, which spreads itself over the web with its buttons and invitations to share, Google+ will just be everywhere and in that sense, inescapable.
Many standard Google functionalities will feed back into Google+. You can search for content, for example, with a feature called Sparks, because it can spark off conversations. Sparks can be used to set up incoming content according to your interests. A little like Twitter and a little like LnkedIn Today. So you can see that Google+ hits out at many of its rivals with this new project.
Google's recently rolled-out +1 will also have a big role to play in this network.
Google Can Spread It With Android
A Google+ app has appeared simultaneously with the opening up of the Google+ project. It splits into two and gives you an addition app for the Huddle messaging you'll do. The app is actually somehow neater than the main site. It's really easy to use: what isn't easy to figure out right now is who's seeing what post or reply. This is the thing that users will have to learn and become comfortable with before the network goes mainstream.
The big plus here is not how clean-looking the app is but how it will sprout up on Android phones, of which there are so many now. Android's market share makes it the top OS in the US and although growth has stalled a little lately, it's still nothing to be sneezed at. Undoubtedly, future Android phones will come pre-loaded with Google+ apps. Sheer persistence and spread could help make it another mammoth network on the web and on the go.
Google isn't directly positioning Google+ as another social network, competing with Facebook and others. But the main page looks very Facebookesque. I wonder how long it'll be before Facebook objects, though for now, it doesn't look remotely interested.
After the amount of Facebook fatigue we've all begun to get, no one wants yet another network. But Facebook has had a long time to build and Google has a long way to go. If the functionality and feel is unique enough and gives enough of a benefit to users, it stands a good chance of becoming part of the online social-sharing-networking fabric that's underpinning the internet today.
Mala Bhargava is a personal technology writer and media professional. Contact her at [email protected] and @malabhargava on Twitter