I recently wrote about the video "hangout" feature in Google+, but I didn't talk about the service in general, its other features or why I think it's going to be a strong player in the social networking arena.
Google+ is a new social networking service that's still in what Google calls a "field trial." Launched about a month ago, it's starting to gain traction with an estimated 18 million to 20 million users as of last week. The service is still by invitation only so that Google can watch it grow, tweaking, adding and possibly removing features during the testing period. While still far short of the 750 million Facebook users, Google+, even during this early test stage, has a bigger population than the state of New York.
In some ways, Google+ is a bit of a cross between Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Like Facebook, it's a place to socialize with friends. Like Twitter but unlike Facebook, Google+ makes it possible to follow people who don't follow you, which makes it a great platform for celebrities, pundits, politicians, journalists and others who can amass a large audience of followers without having to become a fake "friend" of everyone who follows them.
It's also nice for people who want more control over who can read their posts and whose posts they want to see. And like LinkedIn, it's possible to use Google+ to keep up with a professional network of colleagues and also use it as a social hangout for friends and family.
All this is possible because of what Google calls "circles." When you encounter someone on Google+ with whom you want to communicate or just keep up with, you can add them to one or more circles. When you add a person to one or more of your circles, they get a message that they have "added you on Google+." The message also encourages you to "follow and share with" the person by adding him or her to a circle but reminds you that "you don't have to add them back." If you don't put them in one of your circles they will only see what you post publicly.
But even people who are in your circles don't necessarily see everything you post. Just below the area where you type in what you want to share, there is a prominent notice with the circles you shared with last time you posted. And if you've shared publicly, the word Public appears prominently.
By default, these sharing options remain in effect the next time you post, but you can easily change them each time. I'm not sure I agree with that strategy -- it strikes me you should be able to set your own default that pops up each time while still making it very easy to change. In any case, it's important to pay attention to whom you're sharing with. If you say something public and later have something semiprivate to say, you need to change the setting before posting. You can also use this feature to post to individuals, even if they're not in your circles or you in theirs.
Facebook actually has a similar feature called "Lists," but it is hidden in the interface and hard to use, which is the reason that it's not often used. Google+ circles are not only front and center, but you're required to add people to a circle if you wish to let them view your nonpublic posts. And while you can see anyone's public posts by searching for them or stumbling on one, adding a person to your circle assures that their public posts are part of your stream.
To get user reaction to the service, I reached out on Google+ with a public post asking people what they like or don't like. Several people were frustrated by what one person referred to as "circle management." Some people post a great deal, and you can become overwhelmed by their comments (Twitter has the same problem). Of course you can take them out of your circles but perhaps there could be an option of just viewing the last two or three comments of more prolific users.
Another person suggested that users should be able "to mute comment chains that have begun to rehash the same topics over and over and over." Several people have called for Google to release APIs (application program interfaces) to allow third-party developers to create software and services to enhance Google+ with products like TweetDeck, which provides alternate ways to use Twitter and Facebook on PCs and mobile devices. For more good ideas see "The Google+ Punch Lit (21 Items Google Must Add to Plus) at Launch.is
It's important to remember that Google+ is still in its "field test," which is Google's way of admitting that it's not quite ready for prime time. The company is looking carefully at user reaction to Google+ and is in the process of tweaking and enhance it.
On its press site, Google says, "How long the testing phase lasts, and how the product evolves, will really depend on how it goes. We don't have a set amount of time." But Google has a habit of keeping products in this testing stage for a long time. Gmail remained in "beta" for years, even after it accumulated more than 100 million users.
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Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.
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