Cyberculture: The pluses and minuses of Google Plus +

A brave new world?The internet speeds forever forward, with every online company trying their best to get you to spend time interacting with their website. Search giant Google recently introduced a ‘+1’ option to search results,  designed to encourage user feedback on the usefulness of sites.

The introduction isn’t the only way the big G is trying to ‘muscle in’ on Facebook’s screen time however, with the current trial of ‘Google Plus’.

The only way to become a part of it at the moment is to be invited someone already in it, much like their ill-fated Google Wave product from last year (a hybrid instant messenger, email and file sharing program designed to encourage communication).

So what’s it all about? The easiest way to think about it is one part Facebook, one part Twitter and two parts Windows Live Groups and Hotmail. The principle is that you invite people you know – this can only be done automatically from Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo so far, but Facebook too with some fiddling – and put them into ‘Circles’ according to their relationship to you, much as you might organise your address book contacts on Hotmail. That way when you share content through Google (such as uploading photos) you can choose who to share those pictures with, so it’s easier to put up those pictures from Friday night without the possible embarrassment of the boss seeing them!

The point of this is to give an ‘at a glance’ view of others’ internet activity, allowing you to dip in to people’s status updates, pictures, blog posts etc, much like Facebook’s newsfeed. The interface is entirely customisable, and in this way it’s more useful than Facebook, since Facebook tends to guess who you are interested in hearing about, Google Plus lets you tailor it to your needs much more easily.

It's quiet in here, can you hear the echo?Since many people have Google as their home page, this plus service aims to provide a one-stop shop for ‘checking the internet’ bringing in as much information as possible from other people you are digitally connected to.

With internet information sharing there is always security concerns, and this is another aspect where Google gains the upper hand. The way it is set up doesn’t require you to share information about yourself in order to keep tabs on others, so if you were just curious about how a friend was getting on, you could see quickly and easily without them even knowing. It only uses information people have already made publicly available, so there’s no more risk of data theft than using the websites generally, in fact it can flag up just how much information about yourself there is out there.

The next step in using Google Plus, once you have connected some friends together in ‘Circles’ is videochatting with them in a conference known casually as a ‘Hangout’, unashamedly pinpointing the likes of Skype (now owned by Microsoft) in their sites. This allows you to jump in and out at any time, though how well Britain’s troubled connection speeds will cope with the bandwidth needed for multiple streaming is anyone’s guess.

Aspects of Google Wave have found their way into plus too, such as the concept of ‘instant’ uploading, which allows you to upload photos from your phone through thin air as soon as you take them, rather than collecting them together and uploading through your computer later.

Next up is ‘Sparks’ a feature designed to bring you things you are interested in, so if you wanted something to do with rock music but didn’t know what it would choose something hip and happening, akin to MS’ ‘Bing decision engine’. So, in this example, ‘rock music’ brings up news that Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl believes drum machines ruin rock tracks.

One feature which could prove very useful is ‘Huddle’ which allows you to group people together on your phone for a group text conversation, but presumably everyone will need to be using it for it to work, and no question on how much of your data will be used.

In all it seems very casual and Google has worked hard on making the interface very ‘funky’, perhaps a lesson learned from their extremely popular Android mobile phone operating system.

While new things are always interesting, the test of the Google Plus (or +) interface, will be how many people go for it, because if people don’t sign up then you’ll end up talking to yourself…

And therein lies the biggest issue so far, despite being very active in cyberspace, my own Plus profile doesn’t show up any of my own tweets, updates or blog posts, making my home screen currently tear-jerkingly empty. Getting friends on board is fine providing you have your Hotmail contacts list in order, but having accepted the challenge and found I have 1200 people in the address book (including interests imported from Facebook masquerading as people, such as feature films and bands), it’s going to be a mammoth task whittling the numbers down to people who I actually get in touch with on a regular basis.

This is the key difference between Google Plus and Facebook, Facebook wants as many people connected as possible, Google Plus wants them talking and sharing with each other. A noble message but how many people can one person keep in touch with at once? Not 1200 that’s for sure, particularly if many of them aren’t ‘real’ or are just ‘contact us’ email addresses.

Used right, Plus could make everything about the internet more streamlined, cutting down the time needed to get the information you actually want, and so taking the clutter out of what Facebook. But half the fun of Facebook is talking to someone you haven’t seen for years just on a whim, which is something you wouldn’t get from Plus. Perhaps a dose of HTC’s ‘Sense’ technology might smooth the transition?

Time then, will be the test, as it often is on the internet, if nothing else it’s forcing me to clean up my bloated Contacts book on Hotmail, and probably Facebook as well.

James Michael Parry

Links:
Google Plus project – http://www.google.com/+/demo/
In-depth technical explanation on CaseDetails – http://www.casedetails.com/2011/05/12/google-plus1-explained/
The fate of Google Wave on TechCrunch – http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/04/wave-goodbye-to-google-wave/

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