Initial Reaction: Google+
I have long written about the distinct difference in design between what I see as the leading social networks, Facebook and Twitter, and that difference is the open or closed nature of the network.
To reiterate the basics of this discussion, the tennets of which remain largely the same despite upgrades that bring both networks closer to each other in function, Facebook was designed to foster existing social circles while Twitter was largely designed as a broadcast medium that, when left to it’s default settings, speaks to a boundlessly open community. The major function that makes the two services similar, the ability to share your life with people, is indeed mirrored by both as well as other social networks the major difference is who exactly you are sharing that information with. Google+ seems eager to bridge the divide.
Google has recently released its social media offering, Google+, in a package looking very much like Facebook but having a few notable functional differences that could give the preeminent social network something to be concerned about. Google+ is largely organized around “circles” with which you can share information. This is the most important contribution of Google+ because this arrangement better mirrors actual organization of our social lives, therefore better mirroring and adapting to real life social interactions. Like a vinn diagram, for those diagram geeks out there, you can have multiple circles and those circles overlap as social circles tend to do. Most importantly with every post you choose which circles should be informed, and which should not, allowing you to use Google+ at work and choose against informing all of your colleagues. This solves one of the greatest flaws I have long seen with Facebook: lumping everyone, from loose acquaintances to your dearest mother, into one single category of “friend.” I am well aware that Facebook has, for some time, allowed you to group your friends into various categories and manage what they can see and not see however this functionality has always seemed an afterthought and a bit tedious to manage. With Google+ the underlying assumption is that you have a complex web of relationships that call for different levels of information and from the moment the relationship is made, by adding someone to your circles, you define that relationship.
Somewhat brilliantly, by allowing you to better manage the flow of information to your acquaintances based on relationships you define, Google+ has straddled the line between open and closed social networks. The network with whom you are sharing is as large or as small as you want it. With G+ you are not asked to confirm a friend, but given the opportunity to “follow back” or not if you choose, making the creation of relationships far closer to Twitter than it is to Facebook. While it is still not clear to me after only a few days of use what the dynamics of this will be, and how information will be shared if one or the other is not “circled” by the other, it is quite clear that the process will not require a direct “approval” of a person as a contact. Twitter, in its default settings, behaves much the same way with one very large difference: there is no way to throttle information based on the receiving party. If your boss tries to follow you on Twitter, private account or not, you can only say yes or no. With G+ you can accept with an asterisk, keeping that person in a circle but keeping that circle as informed as you deem appropriate.
By the way Google Buzz has been added as part of Google Plus, making the platform a great deal like Facebook with Twitter-like Buzz built in.
There are a few other important things to note as well.
Mobile: Google+ has not yet released an iPhone or iPad app which, of course, are at the forefront of our mobile media universe and very necessary for the likes of me to access Plus with any regularity. The Android app is available already which, I certainly hope, does not surprise you. The web app for Google Plus Mobile is the dullest interface I have ever seen and reinforces my belief that HTML5 based mobile web apps are a shoddy way, at best, to reach a mobile market. While it is slightly better than nothing it is very limited in what you see and how you interact, therefore on mobile I have often simply viewed it through the desktop interface which kind of works sometimes.
Images: The display of images is gorgeous, in my opinion, and is designed to maximize use of screen space to display large thumbnail images. Scrolling over an image in the album display page is an easy way to get a clear preview of the image, though the thumbnails are already quite large. Clicking on an image brings up a huge, easily navigable, lightbox-type picture theater in your browser window that is far larger than that found on Facebook.
Basic reaction: Google+ is very much a day late to this game but it is not a dollar short. G+ improves on the functions of the two major social networks, Twitter and Facebook, while lacking a bit on mobile accessibility which, I can only imagine, will be sorted out shortly.
Google+ may have done with social networking what Gmail did for email when it was introduced: refined it very effectively. Being tied directly into the Gmail user base should give it a good boost but the question is: does anyone need another social network?
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