What is the Plus of Google+?

Today the invites of new Google+ service have been spreading around the world like a wildfire. It is still too early to present any thorough review of this thing (only few hours of sporadic tests do not really cut it), but some initial thoughts:

  • Google+ replicates many of the core functionalities of established services like Facebook and Twitter (plus photo-sharing sites like Flickr), but it does it a bit differently, often better, sometimes just… differently.
  • It highlights the role of filtering, or privacy settings through its “Circles” in a manner that makes the boring task of setting up “Family”, “Colleagues”, “People of This or That” groups almost fun. Its group based settings are nothing new in themselves, but the design of the service makes them feel a bit new. The design philosophy of Google+ is based on importance of recognizing the social “frames” (à la Erving Goffman) for our daily existence, and it also supports the “layering” of this mundane reality: it is easy to select an individual post, photo or other item to be shared among just one “circle”, or several. An individual can belong to several circles.
  • Still, it seems unlikely that people would leave their established networking services just for the pleasure of better privacy settings. Google needs something else. Something “plus” in their “plus service”.
  • Their mobile client (Android, there is no yet public release of iOS one) is nice. It makes following, sharing and maintaining one’s social network pretty straightforward. It is better than, e.g. the Android version of Facebook client. But probably nothing revolutionary here.
  • Other key features include “Sparks”, is a sort of automated content feed on a user-chosen topic. I have not used it enough to comment on its actual usefulness. It appears to be based on a sort of “beefed-up” Google search, that is tweaked for “viral”, social media oriented properties (whatever those are).
  • Then we have the “Hangouts”, a playful video chat for up to ten people. Apparently it is quite fun and functional, and allows one to joke around while e.g. watching a Youtube video together. My problem with this is only that I cannot get the required plugin to install to my Vaio Z. Otherwise, I have my doubts whether daily rhythms allow time for having a camera and microphone on for that many people. Maybe, but I have doubts.
  • What then is the actual “plus” of this entire thing?
  • My current intuition is that the biggest thing are the changes under the hood; the gradual shift of Google the Search Engine into Google the Social. There are so many potential new functionalities already in this first test release of Google+ that it is quite hard to figure out what is possible, what is desirable and what not. Google handles so much data and has so great a role already in the lives of millions of people, that even small changes in its operation have major consequences. The changes that are now taking place are no minor. My mobile phone, my calendar, my email and my news, social status feeds and photo, video usage are already different from what they were yesterday. The big “plus” of Google+ is thus not in its surface as yet-another-facebook, but rather in the increasingly flexible ways in how the innumerable services Google provides today and in the future are currently being redefined to be relevant for social interaction. And that is an interesting process to follow.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the Tampere University, Finland. Occasional photographer and gardener.

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