Google+ First Impressions

By hook and/or crook I managed to wangle an invitation to Google+ yesterday. After messing around with it a little, I really like what they've done and I think it has great potential.

The circles are clearly the defining feature. The ability to compartmentalize friends into different groups and share things with only certain groups (or combinations thereof) is what everyone has been wanting from social networking sites for a while now. I think they might have solved the dilemma everyone has faced when their boss or parents want to friend them. To be fair, I don't think they're accomplishing anything you couldn't already do with lists and privacy settings on Facebook, but they've made it so easy and intuitive and central to the product that it stands a much greater chance of actually getting used. It's a lot like the difference in the security models between *nix systems and Windows that I mentioned in Facebook is the New Microsoft. Facebook started with the assumption that you would want everything you shared to be visible to all of your friends, all the time. This made sense when the only people on it were college students. Now, privacy settings on Facebook are a confusing mess that was bolted on after the fact. Google+ has taken the opportunity to start fresh and build from the ground up with privacy in mind and the result is great.

Circles are such a new concept though, that I think it could use a little more explanation in some parts. It's not always entirely clear how things are going to behave. For instance, when I share a post with a given circle, it sends an email to people in that circle who aren't on Google+ yet. Now, if I later go back and add more people to the circle, are they going to get an email about the thing I shared with that circle? Do I have to re-share to them in order for them to see it? Are people getting emailed when I add them to my circle if they're not on Google+? As you might be able to tell, I'm a little concerned about spamming my friends with Google+ nonsense. I don't think I am, but it would be nice if it were a little more clear on this point.

Google+ grabs all of your contacts from gmail, giving you a pool from which to start populating your circles. This is helpful, but it's a little sloppy at the moment. Gmail has the annoying habit of saving practically everyone who's ever emailed you as a "contact" so there can be a lot of chaff to filter through here to find the people you want. It also only shows you their display name by default and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to see the email address underneath it. It would make sense to be able to manage these contacts inside Google+. It seems like that would be the sort of thing it should do, but there's no option yet to remove people or merge redundant entries together. I guess as they join Google+ their profile will override the information from your contact list. It would be nice if the people in your circles were mirrored into your contacts, essentially replacing your address book entries with their Google profiles wherever possible. Maybe that's on the horizon.

I've only used the mobile app a little bit, but it's looking very well put together too. I'm looking forward to the feature that automatically uploads any photos you take (private by default!). Getting information off of a phone is always an annoyance and it will be nice to have that taken care of without even having to think about it. I have a feeling this is going to be murder on my phone's battery in areas without much signal, but I guess that's just the price you pay. It's easy enough to turn off if it becomes a problem.

The mobile app introduces "Huddles" which seem to be a sort of ad hoc chat room you can set up with your friends. Curiously I haven't been able to find this feature anywhere on the website. I'm not sure if it's intended to be mobile-only or if they just haven't integrated it into the web yet. If enough people get on Google+ I think Huddles could be a viable replacement for text messaging without the character limits and outrageous rate plans. With an Android Huddle widget it would be just as easy to use and have the advantage of being able to seamlessly converse with any combination of people. I guess that remains to be seen.

Overall, I'm optimistic about Google+. They've nailed down a great feature set. It's just a matter of gathering enough steam so they don't become one of those great products that fail because nobody uses them.

Originally published 2011-07-01 12:33:04