Counting Up the Pluses

Judging by the tone of a few cartoons I’ve seen since its launch, reaction to the fact of Google+’s existence, if not the experience of it, is a bit Marmite. At one end of the scale are the cynical voices noting this as Google’s (at least) third attempt to break into the social space, and at the other, the generally approving tone of those noting that it’s like Facebook, but not Facebook.
It’s that last line that I think gives this effort on Google’s part the best chance of success.

It was the lack of a snappy ’high concept’ of this kind that damaged Google Wave’s chances. It was so different and specific a tool that it was almost impossible for a lot of people to understand what it was for, let alone by extension how they would use it. I actually liked it, and wish it had taken off, but in the long run, I think I’m glad it failed if it means I have Google+ in its place.

Poor Buzz, meanwhile. was sabotaged by Google themselves giving it one of the worst launches imaginable: “You know all that stuff you’ve added to our services over the years? All those photos in Picasa and the like? Yeah, now everyone can see everything and the only way to stop it is to opt-out of this new thing called Buzz that we didn’t tell you was coming or give you a chance to set your preferences for.” That’s right up there with the worst of Facebook’s efforts in the ’blatant disregard for users’ privacy’ league. No wonder the default action for everyone I know was to switch Buzz off completely.

“Like Facebook, but not Facebook” though? That sounds both easy to understand and something a lot of people have been waiting for. Facebook’s monopoly of the space is obviously undeniable, and the stranglehold isn’t going to be broken overnight, but a lot of people would really like to have an option, and let’s face it; if anyone has the ability to do it, it should be Google. Very few other organisations have the combination of resources (people, technology and cash) to throw at the effort with much hope of success. Usefully for them, they also have the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes, and more importantly, from Facebook’s.

This is most obvious in their innovation of Circles. A while ago, when the rumours had it that Circles was going to be the new Google social app, the principle behind it seemed so screamingly self-evident that it was amazing no one had implemented it before: you don’t share the same information about your life with people at work as you do with people in your family in real life, so why would you do so online? So now, in Google+, you can arrange your contacts into Circles and select which Circle(s) to share each individual update with. Contacts can sit in more than one Circle, so you can easily sub-divide by interest; “Music Friends/Knitting Friends/All Friends – which group will this update interest?”

And most importantly, the control of sharing (and sharing other people’s) updates is entirely in human hands. Right from the outset, you choose the Circles to share with when you post and you disable the ability to re-share an update at all. And if someone you shared an update with as part of a restricted distribution tries to re-share it more widely, they’re asked to think about whether it’s a good idea to do so. It’s a nice combination of system mechanics and human control that sits just the right side of nannyish, and a long way the right side of some other applications I could name.

Additional layers of protection (like the ability to reject a tag when someone labels you in a photo, and even to block their ability to tag you completely) feel like they put the control in the right hands, and it’s refreshing to have that in place as the starting point for the new app rather than something that has to be retrofitted when users object to your basic principles.

Facebook and its supporters would probably argue that it’s because of their own experiences that Google is starting out this way, but that would miss the point that Facebook’s experiences arise from their basic approach, which is actually where the problem that I and other people have with them lies. Every time Facebook has yet another problem with (other people’s) privacy, there’s a temptation to cry “Does no one in that organisation ever think before doing this stuff?” I’ve always believed the problem is that they do think, but that the way they think is mired in their own rather unique view of what’s okay.

It’s a work in progress, clearly – during this ‘field trial’ – features are being tweaked and feedback requested, but among the people in my Circles I’m constantly hearing the same things – that this is something they’ve been waiting for and they appreciate the ‘user-first’ approach that Google+ seems to represent. In fact, the most common comment I’m hearing, which I would share myself, is that we just want it opened up so that everyone else we know can get in. Just at the moment, to be fair, it all feels a bit empty.

Interestingly, the potentially killer detail of Google+ isn’t actually a feature of the app itself; it’s the integration with the rest of the Google family. Whether I’m in Gmail, Google Docs, Reader or Calendar, the Google+ features on the toolbar make it all feel like it’s one suite of applications – I can see my Google+ notifications from any of the other apps, and I can post updates from them too, meaning sharing an interesting item from Reader, for example, is a piece of cake. The integration isn’t perfect yet – Picasa is kind of integrated, but there are a few wrinkles, and I’m sure there are others I haven’t come across yet, but it feels pretty robust, and the tweaks and revisions are rolling out fast enough that there’s an unmistakable sense that Google is really on the case, leading to the hope that it will be opened up properly soon.

There are things I’d like to see revised – the Sparks feature seems like an RSS Reader in which the feeds are chosen for you, where fully integrating Reader may have made more sense. That said, the ability to search on any topic and have a subject-specific feed in your Sparks is pretty clever – just maybe not so useful for people used to the managed feeds in Reader. I’m yet to try a Hangout, but based on the interface, I think it has a lot going for it. Overall, in fact, I’m almost at the point of echoing a lot of comments I’ve heard and acknowledging that I’m a little bit in love with Google+.

So, “like Facebook but not Facebook” has an obvious attraction for a lot of people. In fact, within about a day of launching, someone had created a mod to skin Google+ to look like Facebook, which might say something. Though as I Tweeted at the time, if you can make Google+ look like Facebook, why would you?