Thanks to my husband I’ve been able to join the ranks of the elite using Google+ (abb. G+) in the beta trials. And I’ve been sending them a lot of feedback about some of the features that I think still require a little tweaking (or sometimes a lot of tweaking). But I’ve been thinking mostly about the way that this functions vs Facebook and the strategic method behind how one shares information on it, and how it will be changing the way we use the internet together.
As a piece of background context I want to share this very important slideshow that goes straight to the heart of the functionality of Google+. Paul Adams is a former Google User Experience guy, and in his presentation Bridging the Gap Between Our Online and Offline Social Network he looks at the sociological research regarding how people group themselves, the bonds they form, and the different social categories into which we divide the people that we know. This is critically important, because this is the exact structure that Google+ is utilizing. Go watch that presentation in full screen so you can read the tiny little notes and then come back and look at this commentary to see where it meets and fails to meet these expectations of social interaction.
Now, here’s my experience.
The core of the interactive relationships on G+ focus on “Circles.” These are the people with whom you interact in the different spheres of your life. G+ begins you off with Friends, Family, Acquaintances, and Following. That gives you a core of preliminary space to play with, and on top of that you can drag and drop people into a blank circle and create a name for it. In my case I created circles of people that I know through the bear community, radical faeries, librarians (being cool librarians I don’t directly work with), Pagans who I know and read online, and staff (who I work with directly). These are radically disparate groups. I still haven’t created separate circles for folks from grad school, undergrad, back home, etc. Maybe later.
The great thing about this is that I can share among these different groups different kinds of information that I find relevant to their lives. If I know I’m going out to bear happy hour I can share that with the bear circle, while the librarians, staff, and faeries are not given that info. This helps avoid the drama of sharing provocative photos, misconstrued status updates, and not oversharing with everyone in your life. Though what Facebook has done to my online sharing habits is opened up information sharing to people I wouldn’t have expected would be interested in reading my comments. Where I would have put someone in the “faeries” circle here in G+, on Facebook they see all of my updates, including my incredibly wonky library stuff, and sometimes they really dig it. So one of the habits I may take up with G+ is putting a lot of things onto my “public” posts, and just seeing where they land. There is also a very important “block” feature for those people who you may still have in your Gmail contacts list, but with whom you never wish to interact again. I have already blocked a few unsavory folks, and I’m glad that’s an option.
One of the current flaws in the Circles feature though goes directly to the intended purpose of Circles, which is understanding the complexity of the relationships between people. Right now under the “find and invite” page you’re given a list of names and photos of people and it says “people who you may know on Google+”. What it doesn’t say is HOW I would know those people. One of the good things about Facebook is that you can instantly see the network of people who are connected to that person and you can instantly recognize to which group they belong. You just take one glance at the mutual friends list and blam, you know. If it’s a matter of privacy about who is connected to whom, G+ should just say that this person may go in this circle. It knows who’s in there, and it’s clear that that’s where it’s drawing from. So why not give me a hover over and light up a circle? I’ve sent this as a recommendation.
One of the big drawbacks at this stage of the trial is that your social connections are very low. There aren’t that many people in the trial, and so it lacks the robustness of the stream that you get from Facebook. This is just a matter of time to be sure. But with a dearth of updates, it makes it less useful as a means of connection. Rather than opening up invitations to only cut them off again, they should have instead turned to their sociological research and given people a limited number of invitations, say 10, and then those users would have sent those invites strategically to their closest friends. This would have made for a more productive beta, as it would have scaled a little more slowly and capitalized on strong ties. As it stands I only have my husband, a few librarians I read online, and the staff at BoingBoing among my active stream. I know that this will change, but it makes it a little boring at the start.
The Sparks feature I haven’t used much. I like it conceptually, because it does what Google does best, but in a more random kind of way. You can basically subscribe to thematic topics, and have those just sitting around for when you’re bored. Unlike Google Reader, there is absolutely no pressure to sit down and scroll through thousands of blog posts. It just pulls a chunk of news from various different sites around the web and pops them in there. You can also put a URL into your sparks list, and it will sort of pull like a feed reader, but it doesn’t work so well that way. My guess is that it’s only pulling articles from those sites based on activity and the floating rank that ebbs and flows based on the algorithms of what is being regularly shared and accessed from those sites at any given moment.
The problem with the Sparks page is mostly cosmetic. At this time you can’t rearrange your sparks in the side bar, and you can’t swap out the “featured” sparks in the fancy windows in the middle of the page. I would like a widget to make a new “featured” sparks screen icon, like these pretty ones here for what my interests actually are. I don’t mind having featured things, but they should align to my actual interests. I don’t care about soccer or sports cars, but I do care about libraries and GLBT news. I’m sure that this will also change and I’ve sent feedback about this too.
Hangout is super cool and is only going to get cooler. Hangout allows you to do multi-user live video chat where people can pop in and out based on the settings that you allow for the video chat room. I spent a few good hours talking with my colleague Andy Woodworth who writes Agnostic, Maybe here on WordPress, just to test drive it. You should see his comments about the 10 person video chat that he had going. That was awesome just reading about it. Yesterday I also had a hangout session during a party, where friends on the west coast joined friends on the east coast over Google Hangout. That was very cool, and I think they’ve got something really great there. One of the other features that makes Google Hangout interesting is that you can also play YouTube videos in there, share them with the group and talk about them together. And with the talk of Google acquiring Hulu, you may soon be able to watch your favorite television shows together with your friends. If there was a way to share content from your computer directly through here it would be even more killer, because then I could play music for a virtual party or share personal films with a select group of people without having to upload them to some place online. Screen sharing basically. It could also make tutoring even more effective because you could connect with one of your teachers directly. Say a teacher has a student in a circle and they go into hangout together to talk about the homework. That’s awesome.
While I didn’t record my experiences with Hangout, the good folks at BoingBoing did, so take a gander at this:
The photos feature nearly freaked me out completely yesterday. See, I installed the G+ mobile app on my phone and I wasn’t sure about this “instant upload” feature. So I said “yes” to instant upload. Then I started taking pictures of an art book that I wanted to share on here, which after the fact I decided against. But as I was taking the pictures with my phone they automatically loaded into G+! I nearly had a heart attack, because some of the pictures featured erotic imagery from Danish bookplates, and they were instantly uploaded to my G+ account. Thankfully it doesn’t publicly state that those pictures are available for everyone to look at instantly. You have to choose from among your mobile uploads which will be visible and to whom. So crisis averted, no heart attack required.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why anyone would want to do that, especially given the prevalence of sexting these days. I came up with two good reasons: 1) Live Events. One of the things that has always been the case is that concert venues hate it when fans take pictures. It’s inscrutable to me why this is the case, but it is. I was at a show last year to see Amanda Palmer at the 9:30 Club and I was trying to get a stage picture when a guard came up and threatened to take my phone away from me. Some folks actually did have their phones confiscated. Later on in the evening Amanda and Jason Webley got up and said something along the lines of take a picture of this URL so you can sign up for concert information. Some folks said they had their phones taken away and she was pissed. Photos were allowed at her show. So she told the venue to give them back. Under other circumstances these folks may not have gotten their phones back, or have been made to delete the photos before they would be given the device back. But if they were using instant upload, the photos would have been online anyway, ready to share with their friends.
And then I thought of something even more important: 2) Police Actions. One of the things that people are constantly dealing with on a global scale are police who threaten people who take video or photographs of brutality to be used against them. In May a Rochester woman was arrested because she videotaped a police officer in her front yard. The video made it onto the internet and it became a huge news story. The same can be said about the photographs and videos arising from the Arab Spring. The images of people in Tahrir Square became internationally recognized, and subsequent movements in other countries flowed onto the internet as well. With a feature like instant upload these pictures get from phones to the web faster, and can get out to the public from there. So in this case it is expediting the publishing of photos as evidence, to heighten public scrutiny. Brilliant.
I don’t have anything to say about huddle yet, because I don’t have enough of my strong tie contacts in G+ to make use of it. I can see the value of it though and I am really looking forward to being able to make use of it.
Google+ is kind of languishing in a little wasteland right now due to the limited connections that people can actually have with people. Thankfully, Google is taking their time to iron out the kinks, which is necessary, and good. Though, until there is a massive influx of users, the ability to use the site is not that great. But once the site starts to gain a critical mass it will be a glorious cascade of awesomeness. Many of the features are very good, and need just a little bit of tweaking to make them even better. The best part is that it respects the fact that users come from different backgrounds and socialize in different groups, and that not everyone needs to know about your wild drinking party or the work you do in with elementary school children, or especially that you do both at different points in your life. Lives are complex and our social networks need to understand that. I think Google+ is really a step in the right direction. It’s taking us in new directions in sharing of content online, both with our friends and with the world. And that just makes things even more fun.