By Harry McCracken | Monday, July 4, 2011 at 2:32 pm
I’ve been using Google+ a lot since it was announced last Tuesday, but I haven’t written much about it yet. There are a number of reasons why I’ve been semi-mum. For one thing, I have a lousy track record when it comes to gut reactions about Google social services. I thought Buzz was intriguing, and I didn’t instantly figure out the privacy issues. And I had visions of Google Wave leading to an epic war between Google and Microsoft.
I don’t completely blame myself for failing to instantly figure out that Buzz and Wave would be very nearly DOA. The most important part of social networks is the social aspect, and that’s impossible to judge from a demo or a closed beta test. And since Google+ still isn’t open to the general public, it’s still early to be rendering any sort of long-range verdict on it.
Still, after almost a week, I’m beginning to form impressions of this service–mostly positive ones–and even if I don’t have all the answers, I have lots of questions.
If Google+ had debuted a couple of years ago, Google would have held a big press bash at the Googleplex to announce this thing. It would have set expectations high, and said that it would be rolling out to the entire planet within a couple of weeks. Instead, it kept things low key–all the celebration that the launch got was a blog post and a few videos. And then Google let in all the people (like, um, me) who would have attended the press event that didn’t happen, and has intermittently allowed us to invite other people. I imagine that Google is pleased with how that strategy has panned out: nearly everyone who’s using the service and writing about it seems to like it. But Google and everybody else won’t have a strong sense of how much normal people like it until it’s open to the general public.
Large parts of the G+ interface are borrowed directly from Facebook. (If you use Chrome, you can even make G+ look almost exactly like Facebook.) The asymmetric nature of relationships–I can follow you without permission, and you don’t need to follow me back–is much like Twitter. But one core Google+ concept is new. It doesn’t just let you create groups of friends, like Facebook does. It forces you to do so, since “adding” someone to Google+ involves assigning them to a Circle.
Google’s theory is that people want to share certain stuff with their family members, other items with college buddies, still other matters with their coworkers, and so forth. Could be. It’s somewhat difficult to tell until Google+ is open to the public and fills up with family members, college buddies, coworkers, and other random folk.
I do know that the concept of Circles isn’t instantly appealing to me. For one thing, one of the things I like about Facebook is that it’s a place where people I’ve known since I was a toddler are elbow-to-elbow with ones I met for the first time last month. (When I share a thought or an photo and a bunch of disparate people from different people Like it, it makes me happy.) For another, I find the process of sorting people into two of Google+’s default groups–Friends and Acquaintances–vaguely unappealing, since it forces me to make judgement calls about just how friendly I am with people.
Then again, I know I’m not a typical Google+ user. I consider all the social networks I’m on to be extensions of Technologizer, and if there’s anything I don’t feel comfortable sharing with the world, I don’t share it on these services, period. Others may feel differently. And their reaction will play a big part in determining whether Google+ is a blockbuster or not.
For the first 24 hours, Google+ appeared to be a land inhabited only by tech journalists, tech bloggers, and Google employees. Today, the population consists of all those folks, plus people who read tech blogs and who have managed to wangle an invite. The conversation is lively, intelligent…and nerdy. It’s a safe bet, however, that Google wants hundreds of millions of people to use G+; it may, in fact, consider it a disappointment unless most of the people who use Google use Google+, too. Will all the early G+ adopters who are raving about it be quite so enthusiastic if it gets overrun by random relatives and former coworkers?
Speaking of the lively, intelligent, and nerdy chatter that takes place on Google+, the vast majority of it–at least among the people I’m mingling with–is about Google+. That’s normal, and probably healthy for something so new and untested. (Twitter was a service about Twitter for a looong time.) But it makes it tough to gauge how useful G+ for discussing a bevy of topics of all sorts, especially since one of the key benefits is supposed to be the ability to divvy your friends up and wall off your conversations.
One of the things I like about G+ so far is that it feels handcrafted–everything in my stream was willfully put there by a human being I know. There are no spammy game invites, no spammy status updates from smartphone apps, no pure spam–none of the stuff that makes Facebook, for all of its value, a place where the noise sometimes threatens to overwhelm the signal. G+ is free of junk because it offers no mechanisms for automatic posting. But what happens when Google offers a G+ API? Is there any chance that it’ll impose restrictions designed to deflect crud? (Me, I’d be just as happy if there were no way for anything except for a human with a keyboard to use the service.)
Little bits of Google+ are already lashed together with little bits of other Google services, such as Picasa. And the new black bar across the top of most of Google gives Google+ users easy access to the service. But for the most part, it feels like a separate, largely self-contained world. I imagine that the +1 button is what’s going to make Google+ feel like more than the sum of its largely engaging parts: at some point, all the +1-ing that people are doing will start to have a profound impact on Google search results. But I’m not sure whether Google has it all figured out yet.
Was Google Buzz really only announced back in February of last year? It became irrelevant so quickly that it seems like it all happened longer ago than that. Now Buzz is a tab within G+, which only helps to emphasize how redundant it’ll be if G+ catches on. Will Google figure out a way to utterly meld Buzz into G+ so they become the same thing? Would anyone care if it simply killed Buzz, period?
Far more than Buzz or Google Wave, Google+ has a “this is the future of Google” feel about it–an aspect seemingly confirmed that it launched at the same time Google redesigned its home page to give it a G+-like feel and announced a Gmail revamp with some of the same flavor. But there are aspects of the service that, while neat, feel positively un-Googley. Especially the playful Circles interface, which was designed by legendary interface guy Andy Hertzfeld. As Wired’s Steven Levy explained it in his excellent behind-the-scenes look at Google+:
Traditionally, Larry Page has been a blood foe of “swooshy” designs and animations geared to delight users. He feels that it such frills slow things down. But Page has signed off on the pleasing-pixel innovations in Circles, including a delightful animation when you delete a circle: It drops to the bottom of the screen, bounces and sinks to oblivion. That animation adds a few hundred milliseconds to the task; in the speed-obsessed Google world that’s like dropping “War and Peace” on a reading list. “I’ve heard in the past that Larry Page he didn’t like animations but that didn’t stop me from putting in a lot of animations in, and Larry told me he loves it.” says Hertzfeld. “Maybe Apple’s resurgence had a little bit to do with it.” In any case, Google has recently tapped Hertzfeld as the design leader of the Emerald Sea team.
The Circles interface isn’t just strikingly different from classic Google–it’s also a departure from Facebook, which has always fulfilled its mission of being a “social utility” in part by erring on the side of being straightforward, not gimmicky. If people like it–and they seem to!–will existing and upcoming Google services show its idiosyncratic influence?
Throughout tech history, great new things have come along and trounced once-great old things. But almost always, the new thing has succeeded partially because the old thing did itself in through arrogance, complacency, confusion, or a combination thereof. Facebook makes its share of blunders–maybe more than its share–but it’s awfully good at bouncing back. Google+ might do just fine with a fraction of Facebook’s users–it could be the Bing of social networks–but it really feels like it wants to be the primary social network for an enormous number of people. People who are presumably already on Facebook. Even if G+ gets better and better, will it be alluring enough to prompt a mass Facebook exodus?
Most of the discussion of who gets hurt (maybe) by G+ involves Facebook. But hey–it’s already more powerful than Twitter (no 140-character limit!), and has characteristics in common with it, too.
Robert Scoble, who makes his living by rushing into new Web services and telling the rest of us what they mean, thinks that neither yo momma nor yo daddy is going to like Google+, at least in its initial form. He’s okay with that, but I’d imagine that Google will be very disappointed if G+ doesn’t catch on with the masses. What if it turns out to be of interest mostly to the Scobles, would-be Scobles, social-media fans, geeks, and tinkerers? Will Google still invest a lot of energy in it, or will it let it fester à la something like Google Groups?
Google’s Realtime Search–a neat service which the company announced back in 2009 with great fanfare–is either dead or in limbo. The official story is that Google took it offline because an agreement with Twitter lapsed, and while I’m not saying that’s not the truth, it’s surely not the whole story. I don’t think anything sneaky is going on, but I wonder if Google will try as hard to index other social networks if it sees them as more direct competition–and whether they’ll be as anxious to get be indexed by Google.
Sorry to come back to the comparison to Bing again, but like Microsoft’s search engine, Google+ has to improve at a particularly rapid clip to stay relevant. If it’s pretty much the same service in even three months that it is now, it won’t get the same glowing reviews that have greeted it so far.
I’m going to continue to use Google+ and think about it. If you’re over there already, you can find me here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.