Tuesday, 19 July 2011
We are, anthropologists tell us, social beings. None of us is an island. As members of 'society', we have connections, of different types, with various fellow humans. These relationships are created and nurtured by communication, i.e. talking, writing and, in the digital age, by sharing content electronically. If we're the sort who likes to classify, we can imagine our contacts in groups; labelled (for example) 'family', 'co-workers', 'thought leaders', 'celebrities' and, of course, 'friends'.
We don't talk with everyone in the same way, or about the same things. We wouldn't share the same stuff with our mates, with Lady Gaga, with our Boss, with our Parents or with our Kids. Most of us dress for work. A night out with the girls or the guys might feature different content, and indeed vocabulary, from a family Wedding and from the Monday Morning Status Meeting at the office. That is of course why we have both Facebook and LinkedIn. Privacy is a flexible concept; most of us share selectively. (Could someone please explain this to Mark Zuckerberg?).
We're living in exciting times. Google+ has just been launched.
Well actually it hasn't yet; it's still in a 'Field Trial'. Right now, across the 'interwebs', Techies, Bloggers, Geeks and Social Media Gurus (if any really exist) are fighting to get their hands on an invitation and then obsessing about every granular detail of what is still an embryonic platform. There are of course plenty of other social networks out there and this one might turn out to be a dead duck. But this is Google, so we should pay attention. Google is being fairly picky about who gets hold of Google+ and we can be sure they're watching and listening carefully to see what we all think i.e. whether they've got it right. (Luckily they have Social Media Monitoring to assist and checking out G+ posts would be a good start). And it's still a work in progress; expect changes. We're some way away from a full launch; indeed Google+ will only really take off if and when friends start recommending it to friends in large numbers, at which time it could spread virally...Facebook better keep announcing 'awesome' things...
So what's all the fuss about? Well Google have had two previous attempts at 'cracking' Social Media; namely Google Wave (too complex) and Google Buzz (err...we went there but nothing happened; let's blame everyone else). Having played with Google+ for the past week, I'm here to tell you this is their best attempt yet. It might even be the first genuine challenger to the mighty Facebook which has recently appeared to stall in the US and Western Europe while still pressing on relentlessly towards 1 billion users globally.
The Google+ user interface is pleasing; Google has taken a lot of trouble considering the platform is still in 'Beta'; the design is clean and attractive and the usability is great; it's easy to navigate your way around.
But we know good ideas often fail. Can Google, at the third time of asking, persuade people to submit to the pain and inconvenience of changing their social networking behaviour by offering something whcih is clearly different and better? (and can it take hold faster than Facebook can copy its cool new features?) Well: it just might.
Google+ features Circles, Hangouts, Sparks and The Stream.
This is great: It’s a hybrid; somewhere between friending and following. You can put different contacts into different groups and target your updates at certain 'circles' only. This neatly resolves issues of what personal updates you don’t want prospective employers or colleagues (or your Mum) to see and, with this feature, Google+ could be seen as a threat both to Facebook and LinkedIn. You can put anyone in a circle, and they can choose whether to reciprocate. Crucially, regardless of whether someone you’ve added to your circles chooses to 'circle' you back, you'll see their public updates.
The animations for creating, deleting and modifying circles are nice and an incentive to move people in and out of your circles. If Google+ does take off, the circles idea could turn out to be its 'killer app'...
Unless of course it's:
OMG: arguably the coolest feature of Google +, which currently gives it an edge over any other social network out there.
This is a group video chat function. Of course we also have Skype's new video chat service. But for millions of Google+ users, Hangouts could be a fantastically attractive feature. A casual, relaxed place for a video chat with your mates, family or colleagues. The future of social networking(?), this could be the 'clincher' for many Google+ users. (And could be a threat not only to Facebook but also to Fast Food restaurants, Bars and Shopping Malls, not to mention Second Life...)
Google has obviously put a lot of thought into the design of Hangouts, even letting users mute video or audio and giving you a second to make sure you’re presentable (clothes, hair and make-up) before joining the chat.
Not only does the group video chat feature function beautifully, but Google has neatly integrated YouTube into Hangouts so you can all watch a video together. (Remember how we all used to gather round the TV set?). There is a push-to-talk feature when you’re watching a video as a group.
To start a Hangout, you just press a button declaring you are open to hanging out, you choose which Circle(s) of friends to send the invite to, and up to 10 people can be in the room at any one time. The group can collectively talk or watch YouTube videos together. And it's so easy. It just works.
Video chat at last. Together with Facebook's Skype calling, this may mark the official turning point for this 70+ year-old technology. Indeed older readers may recall that video calling was predicted by Hanna Barbera in "The Jetsons" cartoons in the '60s, in which a family of 2062 talked on a video phone. In fact Space-Age housewife Jane Jetson never answered it in the morning without first putting her wig on. Pretty impressive futurism. (They missed email and SMS though...)
Skype, now the world’s largest telecoms company (measured by minutes of phone calls) has been offering free group video chat since last year. Facebook and now Google+ have just made it EASY. Suddenly: if you can Farmville, you can video-call any of your contacts with a webcam.
We can get ready for an almighty battle between Facebook and Google around video calling. And if you throw in Apple's FaceTime for iPhone and iPad2, we can include mobile video chat. Watch this space...
With this feature, you can get a feed of things you love, then suggest things that interest you and encourage your circles to talk about them; these used to be called 'conversation pieces' but now we might say 'social objects'.
This is also a great idea, enabling users to list various topics of interest and monitor news about them in one easy-to-find place. No integration with Google Reader yet though?
This is like the Facebook News Feed. But better. It pulls in posts made by the people in your Circles. You, and anyone following you, can also +1 or comment on any post. You can also sort your stream by Circles to view selective posts (e.g. work-related stuff or news from your friends), depending on whether you're in work or leisure mode. This for me again puts Google+ ahead of Facebook.
Overall? Exciting. Google+ genuinely appears to be offering something different (and better) on several fronts; some advantages might take a while to become clear e.g. it might also be big for in-depth discussion of news articles - you can write a longer comment than Twitter allows.
So what about Marketing? Already Brands have been all over Google, asking how they can join in the fun. "Not yet!", says Google; in my opinion, wisely. When Google+ is opened up to businesses (as we can be sure it will be), it will need to deliver immediately; that will need careful preparation. Let's remember that Facebook took the time to build a loyal and engaged member base before going all commercial ahead of its IPO. ("Sell at the top" as they say...)
Personally I'm already keen to use Google+ on a regular basis but I don't feel inclined to maintain separate profiles on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+, so something has to go. Facebook? LinkedIn? Of course the tipping point will come when (if?) people start to delete their Facebook profile and switch to Google+; this sort of thing can become a stampede... just ask MySpace how it feels to wake up on the floor with a hangover and discover that the party has moved on somewhere else.
Google has achieved massive success in Search. Their Android mobile platform is at last really taking off. It is, of course, very early days, but Google+ could be their 3rd big revenue earner; suddenly Facebook looks vulnerable. How quickly things change in Digital...
I've noticed that most posts on Google+ are about...Google+. Understandably, people are sharing their experiences, their thoughts, hints and tips and advice. Which is, of course, what friends are for...