While I did see early versions of Google+ at the end of my tenure at Google, almost everything I remember (which actually isn’t a lot — it was on tight lockdown even then) has changed and/or grown beyond recognition. I don’t have much of anything new to add to what has been discovered or shared, and frankly the best way to understand what Google+ is and does is to sign up and use it yourself.
Still, I will take a little space to describe why I like the service, and why I think it will take over more and more of my online social bandwidth in the coming months. I’ll also point a few things I think could use improvement.
Circles let me be different things to different groups of people. Although I do define some of my circles by the context in which I have met or interacted with people (e.g., college, Google, law school, family), I have also found it effective to define some circles based on interests. Right now, these interest-based circles include tech, law, and music. When I post something, it either falls into one of those categories or is a personal post. For personal posts, I can choose the “level” of friendship I want to share it with, as well as the group who will “get” the post in-context: close college friends, Google acquaintances, high school friends I’ve been in- and out-of-touch with, co-workers I want to keep in touch with, etc.
Before Google+, I felt like my “personal” posts belonged in Facebook and my more geeky posts belonged in Twitter. With Google+, I feel like I share everything, but to certain people and circles as the circumstances require.
The hybrid friend/follow model is perfect. There are some people I don’t know personally, but I want to see what they share publicly. They go into various “follower” circles: lawyers, techs, politics, Googlers, Facebookers, journalists. For others, I feel comfortable sharing content with them sometimes — they go in the corresponding “interest-based” circles described above. Having both of these options available for any given entity is key. There are some people who aren’t popular “celebrities,” but they are rock stars in my world. I don’t feel comfortable sharing my party pictures with them, but I want to know what they’re sharing publicly. And it doesn’t burden them, because they do not have to reciprocate: they won’t see anything I happen to decide to share with them unless they have also put me in a circle.
Conversations are compelling because they are organized and in real-time. A major drawback to Twitter is the lack of attached comments. Although it is possible to trace the “in reply to” trail forwards and backwards in Twitter, it’s a less than adequate solution. Google+’s comment system allows conversations to travel with the content. Seeing posts and comments appear in real-time without refresh is an addictive, engaging experience. It makes me want to stick around to see what others (including those I don’t follow) have to say.
It’s also really great that there is no character limit. Most folks are still keeping their posts to manageable sizes, but the flexibility of Google+ let’s them describe their thoughts more thoroughly. It also let’s them post full URLs if they wish — I didn’t know I missed them so much, but those URL shorteners can actually hide a lot of important information.
Finally, the content preview (image + snippet) is really helpful. Facebook does this well, and Twitter partners with certain content hosts to provide previews, but I think I like Google+’s implementation a lot more.
Photo sharing/management is easy, but could be better. The Picasa integration is well done, and I like how new photos are presented in the stream UI: beautiful and simple. I’m not sure I’m a fan of how photos are presented in blackout zoom mode — seems to not fit with the overall Google+ UX, and feels clunky. I actually really like Facebook’s new zoomed implementation. It seems like face tags don’t carry over from Picasa, and it may also be that photo edits don’t sync up either? Still playing around with this, but I see room for improvement.
Hangouts are cool, but I don’t think I’ll use them for spontaneous conversations. I can see these being awesome for planned group video chats (“Let’s hangout tonight to plan the road trip”). But I just don’t see myself randomly clicking Hangout one night to see who wants to talk, nor do I see myself taking many up on such an offer. I know you can control the circles or friends to whom the invitation is sent… but still, I get a weird, Chatroulette-esque vibe from it.
Sparks are good for non-junkies. Everything I’ve seen in Sparks — at least on topics I care or read about regularly — has been old, too general, or just off somehow. For me, I’m still much more likely to share something from Techmeme, Hacker News, the NYT, or other source that I regularly navigate to, than I am directly from Sparks. But I think for those who are looking to browse for more general stories — or, at least, do not already have a structured informational diet — will find it pretty useful.
That said, I think sharper integration of Google+ and Sparks with Google Reader and Google News would make for a very compelling reading and sharing experience.
Notifications keep me coming back. I turned off all the email notifications because I’m in Google services often enough to catch the glimpse of the cross-product notifier. Right now, I like this, but I can see it become distracting. It will be interesting to if and how they integrate Google+ more directly into the Chrome and Android experiences.
+1 buttons in Search and on webpages need to do more in Google+. Right now, when I +1 a result or page, a list updates in a tab on my profile that no one, including me, will ever look at. I’m sure these actions are somehow improving my and others’ search results, but I want to see those buttons do more for me and my friends in Google+. Let me (selectively) share my +1s into my stream, for starters.
The mobile app — especially instant photo upload — is close to flawless. The background upload of photos makes sharing them that much faster and fun. I have few gripes with the UI and UX. I’m mainly waiting for the ability to re-share posts. The geo-location features seem to work well and quickly.
Huddles seem useful for planned outings, but not much else. I haven’t really been attracted to group mobile messaging apps. I only really see a use case in scanarios where I probably won’t have time to remember if everyone I need to chat with has Google+: meeting up with friends or family somewhere. If one person is missing the app, doesn’t that obviate its usefulness? I can see it useful for planned excursions, though: coordinating with friends on a ski slope or road trip, for example.
I know that part of the reason I’m spending a lot of time on Google+ is because it is new and shiny. But I think the combination of features has added up to a subtly addictive and profoundly useful experience that solves a lot of problems that the other social heavyweights haven’t figured out yet. It will take a while for non-techs to learn it and get used to it, and I’m sure there will many who won’t even bother. But I have high hopes for Google+, and good feeling that it will prove to be formidable competition for Facebook and Twitter going forward.