Google finally gets social networking

Google has been trying to get into the social networking game for years. That game has oft been left to sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter as the major players in the game. First they tried to buy their way in, and failed. Then they tried to create their own… Enter Google Buzz.

Yeah, you remember the big failure of a social network attempt that had privacy advocates going crazy. Google automatically gave everyone who had a Gmail account a Buzz account and automatically linked them with the people they emailed most often. Well, Google learned and then went back to the drawing board.

Welcome Google+.

They introduced Google+ as a first round of invites and then those members could invite their friends. This was the same way that Google expanded Gmail, Google Voice, and Google Wave. It wasn’t an automatic signup, like Google Buzz had been. This was completely an opt-in solution.

So after a couple days to play with it, Facebook has some competition. To me, it feels like it is where Facebook was a few years ago. To me, that is a great thing! These days, Facebook has expanded too far. Dare I say, Facebook has gotten too big for it’s own good? It’s most recent addition, which I call the “stalker bar,” shows me everything that my friends do on Facebook. If they comment on someone’s status, even if I don’t know them, it shows up there in real-time. So I can tell how recently they’ve been on if they interacted with the site.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that.

If I’m like anyone else, my Facebook friends list is an intersection of my life. I have my personal friends on there, I have my school friends, I have people that I’ve worked with, and I have friends who I know simply from being online forums with them or playing video games.

While I don’t mind when my circles intersect, I don’t need my friends knowing everything that I’m doing on Facebook. Yeah, Facebook had this functionality already, but never has it been front and center. If you wanted the information, you could find it. Now it’s right there and you can’t miss it.

This is what Google+ really has gotten right. You don’t make “friends” like on Facebook and you don’t have “followers” like on Twitter. You place people in “circles.” There are a handful of default circles, like friends, family, acquaintances, and just following. I’ve created two more for myself as of right now, one for sim racing friends and one for my fellow United Cardinal Bloggers writers.

Everything you do on Google+ refers back to these circles in some fashion as they control your privacy settings. When you make a post or share a picture or link, it asks you how you want to limit the post. You can make it public for the world to see, keep it just to your circles, perhaps just one circle in particular, or you can limit it to one or a handful of people.

The central part of Google+’s user interaction is posting. That can be text-based, photos, links, or video. Google+ does seem to take a focus on photos, they offer a page and toolbar button simply to see the photos posted and shared by members of your circles.

There is no “wall” on Google+ like their is on Facebook. You simply have the stream. To send a message to a specific user, you would simply designate them as the only recipient in the privacy box of the post. If you want to identify the user, you can type + and put the person’s name in, a drop down box will appear and help you select the right person. This is similar to tagging a person in Facebook or the @reply system in Twitter.

Quick access is on the left of the home page to filter your stream based on any of your circles. You can also chat through Google Chat on the left hand menu. Also there is the “Sparks” menu, which seems to be an area to give you recent news about particular interests that you can save to your profile. I have not played around with this aspect much because it’s not an important one to me.

On your profile page you have all the typical bells and whistles of a social network. You can see who is in your circles and who has you in one of theirs. The profile page will bring you to a list of your recent posts. You also have an About page with all the standard social network profile information. The Photos page integrates with Google’s Picasa service to store and access the images. You can also upload videos to Google+ though I have not played with it yet.

You can also see all the posts that you have “+1″d. This is like a “like” on Facebook or a “favorite” on Twitter. If you look at the bottom of each post here on the site, you can see that a +1 button has already been installed on each post for this purpose. I have a feeling we will be seeing it around the web increasingly in the coming months.

And finally is the Buzz page, a hallmark to a big error. It seems strange to me as it seems to have the stream updates from the old Google Buzz system. I’m not 100% sure why it is still here or how long it will last, but the old system is still found hidden in the new system.

There are also “hangouts” where you can do group chats with your circle members. I believe there is text, audio, and video chat options through it, but I haven’t played with any of it.

What Google+ is to me is somewhere between Facebook and Twitter, and that’s a very good thing. There are many times where I’ve wished there was slightly increased social networking functionality with Twitter (though it’s consistency is one thing that has made me really love it), but at the same time Facebook is getting to be too much these days between apps, games, and all the other things.

Google has built a very good system with Google+ that should remind longtime Facebook users of what we had before applications and before the service was opened up to the world. If we’re lucky, Google+ won’t eventually evolve into that like Facebook has and like MySpace did before it.

Like I was telling my brother the other night, the reason that I love Twitter is that since I started using it in 2007, there hasn’t really been any changes. The system was the same in 2007 as it is today in 2011. There’s been a facelift and they have done things to make the core of what Twitter is, easier to find and access, but Twitter is what it is and it isn’t trying to be more than that. It is a really good thing.

Wherever Google+ does go from here, it’s a really good start and a great foundation. Here’s hoping for the best.

“Don’t be evil.” -Google’s informal corporate motto