Exploring Google+

Friday, July 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm
Jennifer Dick's picture

I was pretty excited when I got my Google+ invitation last week. I might have fist-bumped the air, and just perhaps I crowed a little on Facebook by offering invitations to my friends. The flood of answering excitement never came. Two people asked for invites, and more asked, “What the heck is Google+?” My two invites aren’t posting much of anything. Even my generally tech-savvy supervisor wanted a rundown.

To say it’s Google’s answer to Facebook is the short explanation. The interface definitely shares some strong similarities at first blush. There’s a posting box that allows you to share web links, videos, photos, or your location. There’s an activity feed and suggestions of folks you might want to add. All this works and is great.

What’s really special, though, is the concept of circles. We all have different circles of people in our lives: friends, family, colleagues, people we know from specific activities, and so on; and what we might want to broadcast to one group (“hey, friends, check out this hilarious but completely inappropriate for work video!”) we don’t necessarily want to share with our coworkers, parents, or the first baseman on the weekend league softball team. To manage this on Facebook, you have a couple of options: you can send a group message with a link to the video; or, if this group of people shares such things with each other regularly, you could create a private group page. If you and your friends choose the second option, you have to visit the group page to see what’s been added to the activity feed. It’s only an extra click, but it’s still an extra step you have to take.

Google+ lets you micromanage who sees what. Every post you make to your stream can be shared with everyone, including those without a Google+ account (public), extended circles (in not only your own circles, but also in the circles created by the people in your circles), or specific circles. When you set up your account for the first time, one of the pages you’re directed to allows you to sort your contacts into these circles. Google provides a few default circles, but you can add as many circles as you like. Once you’ve got your circles named, it’s as easy as dragging and dropping people from your Gmail address book or connecting your Yahoo! or Hotmail account using the Find and Invite function.

Circles aren’t just useful for selecting who sees which posts: Google+ also allows you to use them to determine the visibility of different pieces of your account profile. Users can control which circles others can see in your profile (both who you’ve connected with and who has connected to you), as well as each discrete profile section. They even use handy little icons next to each item so you can see at a glance what your privacy settings for each informational section are. To ensure that you’ve got everything theway you want it, Google has given users the ability to view their own profile as someone else. Again, you can choose to view it as a stranger on the web, or as someone in one of your circles. This allows you to make sure you’ve properly tucked things away when they’re intended only for a specific audience and not for public consumption. What about the problem of people reposting something I wanted to limit to a specific circle of people, you mayask? Well, Google’s thought of that trick, too. It’s not here yet, but the next update promises to give users the ability to lock posts down, meaning that they can’t be shared with people outside the original circle. Pretty nifty.

Another perk is the ability to create Hangouts, which are basically group video chats. I’ve been pretty pleased with GChat, and the ability to have more than two people involved is really cool, not just from the socializing standpoint, but for business meetings. Having just tested it out, they’ve definitely considered having a group conversation—there’s plenty of real estate for lots of smiling faces.

Lastly, after the wonderfully configurable privacy settings, my favorite thing about Google+ is its integration with Gmail and Google Docs. I have the (bad?) habit of keeping my Gmail open while I work so I can monitor incoming messages and put out fires quickly. Using the new Gmail theme, Google’s added a little activity counter in the upper-right corner of the screen. Right now it only appears in Gmail (with the proper theme enabled), Google Docs, and Google+, but I suspect Google Calendar will follow soon. The user interface team has done a great job of keeping it unobtrusive, and it’s very strategically placed for easy use. “Well, that’s nice,” you say, “but why is this a big deal?” By clicking on the counter, you can not only view the recent activity, but respond to posts as well without leaving off what you were doing. Lovely.

Coming soon: Some thoughts on how to leverage Google+’s features for educators and students.

Additional Reading on Google+