I spent a few hours last night throwing myself into Google+, the new social networking tool that was announced by the company this week. I was part of a select group that received early access so I could kick the tires a bit before the company opens it to the general public. And kick away I did.
I created circles and added started "following friends" (to steal from the Twitter and Facebook lingo). Along the way, as I started to interact with different people, I made some observations about Google+, keeping in mind that the service's goal would be to take the social crowns away from the current leaders in social.
Here are some my initial observations as I used the service:
Unlike Facebook and just like Twitter, there’s no “friend/follower” reciprocation necessary. I can put someone I don’t know into one (or many) of my circles and they can choose to not include me in any of their circles.
Circles are just groups - and that could be both a bad thing and a good thing. Users are forced to place someone he or she chooses to follow into a circle first. That forces the user to start thinking about people as part of smaller groups, even though they can place someone in multiple groups.
Sharing with groups only, in concept, sounds like a good idea. But some of the best interactions I’ve had on Facebook have been with people who’ve commented on posts and pictures that would have never expected them to comment on. We may be selective about who we let into our inner Facebook circles, but once they’re in, they’re pretty much given an all-access pass. What could be a challenge for Google+ is getting users to think about how to share to specific groups only - that is, actually think about which followers won’t be able to see a specific post. (By the way, that makes it harder for moms and dads to keep an eye on what the teens are saying and posting online if they’re only sharing within certain circles.)
Hangouts feel like chat rooms from back in the old AOL days. In modern days, we’d compare them to Twitter #hashtags. Essentially, they bring people together based on a common topic of interest, which could be interesting during breaking news events, such as celebrity gossip, natural disasters or the latest from Washington and Wall Street. The video chat feature inside “hangouts” also opens the concept to some interesting ideas - such as people sharing live coverage from the scene of a news event.
Sparks, on the other hand, looks like it has some deep integration with Google Search, but made to feel more like Google Reader. Type in an “interest,” such as Obama Press Conference and you’ll get a list of news articles, YouTube videos and other results related to that query. This is what Google meant by always having something to read or watch about something of interest. Mind you, this isn’t stuff that people in your circles are posting - these are search results. (Does anyone have any questions about how these results are determined, ranked and displayed? I think I just heard the widening of the FTC’s antitrust probe.)
I was able to find a number of people to connect with pretty easily. In the "Find People” box, I typed in “Mercury News” and came up with a list of Google+ users who had my former employer - the newspaper of Silicon Valley - in their own Google profiles. From there, I poked around to see who was in their circles, as well as whose circles they were in. (Remember: those can be two very different groups of people.) From there, I found some former colleagues and then some more former colleagues, as well as some tech bloggers whom I read regularly and some executives at companies that I track. They might have some interesting things to +1 (has it already become a verb?) down the road.
Google is going to need to open the invitation floodgates pretty quickly if it wants to hit the ground running and keep the momentum going around what we early adopters have started. Remember: Facebook started off slow, too, with access, initially just for college students, followed by people with a “work” email address and eventually to anyone with an “@” in his email address. To this day, my user name is a work email address for a former employer. Google can have a little bit of leeway as it takes a few spins around the block with a growing test user base, with eventually it’s going to have to open this sucker to everyone. It can’t afford to roll out slow and risk losing momentum they way it did with Buzz and Wave.
Is this why Google didn’t kill Buzz the way it killed Wave? I’ve added Google Buzz to TweetDeck and suddenly I’m empowered to post the same updates, links, photos and more to Facebook, Twitter and Google+, all with a single click.
And I've only scratched the surface.
It's ironic that the big buzz around Google+ would surface right around the same time that reports of MySpace's sale to Specific Media, an advertising network, for $35 million started to surface. MySpace, of course, had once been the pioneer in social networking - and this sale feels a lot like one of the final nails in the coffin. At one point, MySpace was the one to beat in social - and clearly Facebook and Twitter have done just that. Mind you, some will say that MySpace was a victim of bad business decisions - but in the end, it was unseated and replaced by something new.
I'm not saying that Google+ will be the one to unseat the mighty social Kings of today - but Google has obviously put a lot of thought into developing a strong competitor to the existing social leaders. And this is just the beginning. With more enhancements to the service and a mighty strong user base of people already tapped into the Google network via Gmail or YouTube accounts, Google has the potential to quickly build a membership just as large as Facebook or Twitter relatively quickly - and become a real thorn in the competition's sides.