Google Pluses and Minuses

With 700 million people on Facebook, and 200 million using Twitter, what the world really needs is another social networking tool, yes? Well, maybe. As it did with search engines, email, and mobile phones, Google has a pretty good record of looking at someone else’s successful product and thinking, ‘It can be done better than that.’ Hence Google+.

Is it worth a look? Probably. Ultimately, the issue is numbers: at the moment, it feels like the start of training day when only a few people have turned up, no-one quite knows exactly what to do, and it’s all a bit awkward. If a bunch of my closest friends all start using Google+ then it will probably win me over, as Facebook did from MySpace years ago, because in a number of ways it is better, particularly for those of us who still hold on to the concept of some friends being closer than others.

However inaccurate the portrayal of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network was, the fact that Facebook still doesn’t allow me to differentiate between my wife and someone I went to school with 20 years ago and haven’t spoken to since suggests a lack of understanding of the nuances of social interaction. Whatever Facebook says, I do not have 758 friends. Zuckerberg may argue that this ‘one size fits all’ designation encourages us to be more open and consistent with everyone, the Silicon Valley utopia, but it actually leads to a devaluing of true friendship.

This is where ‘Circles’ comes in on Google+. The principle is that you can categorise people however you wish: as close friends, work colleagues, family members, etc. and choose what you share within those different circles. It’s not actually unique to Google+, The City works in the same way, but like all Google’s most successful products, it makes you think, ‘This is the most obvious thing in the world, why doesn’t everyone else do this?’

The other main features – group video chats and instant messaging – are also designed to help you ‘hang out’ online with your friends more easily and add Skype, MSN Messenger and BBN to the list of products under attack. There are a few others benefits hanging around, my friend Katie has written in depth about the photo editing software that seems to have been built in, and you can share anything with the '+1' button, which you'll find at the bottom of this article and all over the web soon enough.

The only thing that’s really annoyed me so far (apart from the fact that I’m considering yet another social networking tool) is trying to use it on a mobile device. This is impossible without letting Google know where I am, which it probably does anyway but when I’ve got the choice about disclosing my location, I don’t want to give it up so lightly. I find ‘checking in’ on Facebook very weird but at least I can opt out of it.

Which to choose? For now, Facebook will continue to be the best way to connect to people I meet, as many of them are students and the question, ‘Are you on Facebook?’ became redundant a couple of years ago. It’s where I expect to find out a lot of my friend’s news because it’s the grapevine. Having said that, my Facebook newsfeed seems full of information I don’t care about, and I spend much less time on there than I do on Twitter. As to the difference between Google+ and Twitter, Caitlin Moran encapsulates it: “Twitter is like a pub full of people shouting. Google+ is more like withdrawing to the smoking room with friends.” Its great strength is that it seems set up to remain that way, however many people are in the pub. If more do come in, could we be about to recover the value of friendship?

Disclaimer: I only chat with a couple of my best friends through social networking anyway, most of them I email, text or call (using Google products).