By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
How new is Google+ (aka Google Plus)? The invitation I got to join the field test of the service landed in my Gmail spam folder. It was an inauspicious start, but I was still excited to try it out and see what the hype is about.
Let me start by saying that I think insta-reviews of big, ambitious new services by iconic tech companies aren't very useful. There’s very little you can learn in a few hours — with a few hundred testers — that will capture the breadth, depth and true possibilities of anything complicated. Even NYT food reviewers try to go a restaurant multiple times before handing out their precious stars.
That said, here are some initial impressions.
• This is Google's last stand in social-media. After striking out with all-hype and little-substance services like Buzz and Wave, most folks have written off Google's chances of doing anything effective in social media. Google chairman Eric Schmidt has characterized his company’s failure to challenge Facebook as his biggest regret. Here's what he told tech journalist Kara Swisher at the AllThingsD conference in June, as reported by Wired: "I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it," Schmidt said. "CEOs need to take responsibility. I screwed up." As Google’s efforts flopped, Facebook — along with services like Twitter and LinkedIn (and even Foursquare, which has hit 10 million members recently) — kept growing. This is probably the last time anyone will be willing to give a Google social-media effort a fair hearing. So the stakes here are very high.
• Don't count Google out. Back in March, I wrote the following about Google in the aftermath of the Japan earthquake: This crisis has shown the role that Google plays in our lives: the smart, reliable, inventive friend who we can count on in times of need. It's not as exciting as our new, hipper friends, perhaps, but when we need it, Google is always there. I was talking about its efforts such as the Japan People Finder and Google.org's Crisis Response Center. But in the world of tech, being reliable isn’t enough, you need to be hip, have some pizzazz. And social seems to be the way to get that hipness. Google, a company that reinvented things we didn’t know needed reinventing — search, email, maps, documents — shouldn't be counted out if it wants one last try.
• Google says it isn't reinventing social networking, it's reinventing online sharing. Here's the premise, as outlined in a blog post: Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it.
• Google Plus has three features worth noting (there might be others). One is called Circles, which allows you to share content with specific groups — or circles — of people; Hangouts, which are group video chats; and Sparks, which produce a constant stream of articles, photos, videos in subject you are interested in. They are unusual and show promise — in theory.
• Google is going after some of the obvious issues with Facebook. The biggest of these is privacy and how information is shared. Right now, when you post something on Facebook, it could get shared with almost everyone you know. There are things you can do to customize what you share by using the lists feature (here's the official tutorial), but it’s awkward, clumsy and requires way too much work for little payoff. The Circles idea is that you create circles such as "family," "co-workers," "real-friends" and can easily share photos, videos, posts, with only people you want seeing that stuff.
• You can't judge a social network when almost no one is using it yet. Right now, it's by invitation only (here’s where you can ask for an invite — it may take days or weeks to get one). I can't test the features or tell you how they'll work because a network like this needs thousands — millions — of users in order to be dynamic and robust. Gmail started out as invite only and it has done fine, but because it was just an email service, you could test it with other systems. Google Plus doesn't play with other services, so it's pretty quiet right now. My suggestion to Google would be to open it up as fast as it possibly can (how about letting each user invite 100 people they know, like in Gmail's early days) so that it can capitalize on the interest and curiosity.
• Facebook won't sit still. I expect to see some of Google Plus features showing up inside Facebook in the months ahead — as well as other innovations to keep people interested and tied into the Facebook world.
• The main question is going to be, do people want another social network? Even though millions of people are active Google users every day, using Google Plus means making a decision to actively participate in this new service. Consumers have invested their time and energy and attention on things like Facebook and Twitter and will now need to decide whether they want to add another to their toolkit. The gravitational pull of the other services is so strong that getting people to use Google Plus will depend on whether enough of their friends and family members are already on it. But those others folks won’t join unless their friends are there, creating a social-media chicken-and-egg problem.
For now, all I can say is if and when you get a chance, play around with Google Plus, knowing that some of its innovations and philosophy are going to be part of your digital world, no matter which network you finally settle on.
Post your comments below using your Facebook account or on Twitter @sree.
Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.