First Contact: Early Reflections on Google+

Currently, I’m on a beach vacation with my family in Long Beach Island, NJ. This would normally mean that the only thing I read is US Weekly and the only thing I write are shopping lists that look like this “Beer, Candy Bars, Sunblock, Beer.” However, every afternoon my son needs to take his nap And since the baby monitor does not reach the beach, someone has to sit in the house, waiting for him to wake up. Today that someone is me. But, waiting around the house is no real tragedy when there is a porch overlooking the beach for me to sit on and a wi-fi connection. So I thought I would use this time to reflect on the latest bit of social networking technology to come my way: Google +.

First contact. Thanks Annie!

I first heard about Google+ last week when I received an invitation to join from a friend who I met, tellingly, through another social networking platform, Twitter. I didn’t know what Google+ was, but it sounded exclusive and new, and I love things that are exclusive, so I decided to check it out. When I clicked on the “learn more about Google+” button I was informed that the system was overtaxed and that I should try again later. This experience of course only piqued my curiosity further. The site was so exclusive that even the early adopters were having trouble getting on. How tantalizing.

A few days later I tried again and was able to log on with no problem. Exciting! I set up my profile, looked around, and … was instantly bored. What was I supposed to do with Google+ now that I was on Google+? Indeed, that seemed to be the question everyone else on Google+ was asking.

My first post on Google+

As far as I can tell, Google+, which is still in its “field test” mode, meaning there are not a lot of people using it yet, is a lot like the other social networking platforms I am currently using. As with Facebook, Google+ allows you to compile friends, post updates and links into a live feed, comment on other people’s posts, add photos, comment on other people’s photos, etc. So far I can only detect two big “differences” between Facebook and Google+:

1. Instead of a “like” or “share” button, Google+ offers a “+1″ button. 

2. Google+ allows you to group the people you’ve connected with into “circles” of “friends,” “following,” “coworkers,” and customizable categories to suit your needs, like “fellow graduates of clown college.” 

Now as far as #1 goes, who cares? In fact, it kind of reminds me of the character in Mean Girls who keeps trying, and failing, to get all of her friends to use the word “Fetch.”

As for #2, yes this is a nice addition. Facebook provides this functionality as well, so that you could theoretically corral your updates in such a way that your work friends won’t see the status updates about how much you hate the people at work and your non-work friends won’t see the status updates about how much you hate them. But I’ve found this process to be clunky (and what if I ever screwed it up?), so I tend to make my Facebook updates for a “general audience.” But since Google+ demands that you place people into circles as you add them, well, I guess you don’t have a choice do you? Indeed, although I have only found 18 people to add to my Google+ circles, I find that making choices about whether to put an individual into the “friend” or “following” category is a little stressful. As Farhad Manjoo points out in a very illuminating Slate article, Google+ allows your friends/followers/coworkers/fellow graduates of clown college to see exactly what circle you’ve put them into.  Awkward. [Editor's Note: I was under the impression that people on Google+ will know what circles they have been placed into, but after I was on the site a few days I realized that this was not the case at all. Phew! Now I can keep those "Assholes" and "Douchebags" circles in tact]. Should the person who I only know through Twitter, but with whom I frequently have conversations, be considered a “friend” or simply someone I “follow”? Will she think it presumptuous of me to list her as a friend or rude of me to list her as someone I simply follow?

Circles on Google+

Manjoo also makes another great point about Google+’s circles:

I wonder, though, whether the whole theory of “circles” is misguided. It’s very possible that we’re all less obsessed with compartmentalizing our relationships than Google imagines. It’s probably true that, as Paul Adams says, we keep multiple circles of acquaintances in real life. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that people want to take the time to reflect that behavior online. After all, in the real world, managing your circles of friends is usually an implicit thing—you hang out with your school friends when you’re at school, you hang out with your New York friends when you’re in New York, you talk to your coworkers when you’re at work. Unless you’re planning your wedding seating chart, you don’t usually go around categorizing and grading groups of friends, adding some people in and keeping other people out. And take my word for it: After you do it for your wedding, you’ll never want to do it again.

Yes.

In the few days that I’ve been on Google+ I’ve noticed that most posts are about users questioning the value or purpose of being on Google+. Others post links to articles like the one I just cited, which either question the site’s value or which list the reasons why Google+ has the potential to be revolutionary, such as “The Google Plus 50.” When I read these articles, I find that they don’t offer users like me many compelling reasons to be on Google+.  For example, do I care that “With G+ seeing our comment streams, their ability to better plot social graphs and integrate AdSense and maybe even Google Affiliate opportunities is huge. (Yes, FB does this, but Google thrives on Adsense.)”? Do I even know that means? Alas, I do not.

Everything on Google+ right now is highly meta.

I am not a media analyst, I’m not in marketing, I’m not interested in “analytics” or “location focused media delivery.” But there should be compelling reasons for someone like me to use Google+. And who am I? Quite simply, I am an avid user of social networking sites. I share a lot of content: links, photos, blog posts, etc., on Twitter as well as Facebook. I truly enjoy chatting and interacting with friends who I have met online. So what value does a site like Google+ have for someone like me?

Sharing photos on Google+

Right now, at least, I am interested in Google+ because I am interested in watching a new social networking platform develop. I was late adopter of both Facebook (August 2008) and Twitter (March 2009), and I have always been curious about what these sites looked like and how they functioned before they achieved a larger user base. What did people on Twitter do when there were only a few people on Twitter?

Currently, Google+ resembles the first 30 minutes of a middle school dance. You were told the dance started at 8:00 pm so you had your Mom drop you off at 8:00 pm sharp. But when you get to the gymnasium, there are only  few other kids there and nobody knows what they should be doing. The PTA did its job and the gym looks great: the strobe light is on, the punch bowl is full, and the DJ is playing “It Takes Two.” In short, every component of the dance is in place, but no one is sure where to start or what to do. Should I get on the dance floor? Should I have a cup of punch? Is it time to start making out under the bleachers?

This is how everyone on Google+ seems to feel right now.  A few of us have ventured out onto the dance floor, posting a comment or a link here or there, and then retreated, noticing that no one else was joining in. But I suppose that this is exactly how a social networking site begins. And as awkward as it all is, I’m excited to be here. I’m ready to dance.

So readers, any of you on Google+ right now? If so, what do you like about it? And more importantly, can you add me to your circle?