Forget being friended on Facebook or followed on Twitter. What you really want now is to be Circled—or so Google hopes.
The company’s latest social-networking effort, Google+, lets users organize people into Circles of friends so you can choose what you share with each group. It offers multi-person video chats and a feature called Sparks that encourages users to plug into news that interests them. It integrates with Picasa, Google’s photo site.
Google+ is designed to compete with Facebook, but judging from my non-techie friends’ reactions over the past two weeks, the initial setup can be confusing. Plus, many of them aren’t eager to build another social network. This week, I’ll take a step back to explain Google+, how it differs from Facebook and just what’s with the Circles.
Like most of Google’s products (think Gmail), the Google+ you now see isn’t a finished version. Rather, it’s being called a field trial, meaning it will be tweaked as more of us use it. A spokeswoman said a limited number of people were initially invited to sign up. You’ll need a Google profile—not necessarily a Gmail account—to sign up. If you’d like to be alerted when Google+ is made public, go to plus.google.com. I was given 15 invitations a couple of weeks ago when Google+ launched so I could create a network of real friends to test it.
Features Made Obvious
Surprisingly, Google+ was designed with more attention to appearance and delightful animations than most other Google programs. It feels polished and slick. I found some of its features more obvious and easy to use than those in Facebook, where settings are buried in hard-to-find menus.
Then there are the Circles. These are visually obvious ways of sorting people you know into groups: One way to add a person to a Circle is by dragging his or her photo onto a labeled Circle (i.e. Best Buds or Tennis Team). The person’s tiny, circular image rolls around the Circle and bumps up against a photo of someone else in the group. Removing someone from a Circle is as easy as dragging their photo out.
When sharing anything via Google+, users are prompted to choose which Circles they want to see this content. Only the person who created the Circle knows its name and the people in it. As far as other people know, they’ve simply been added to a Circle. As long as you have a Google profile, you can be added to someone else’s Circle. But you can opt to remove your Google profile from search results, which may mean fewer people will add you to their Circles.
You are never asked for your approval to be added to someone else’s Circle. The same goes for Facebook Groups, which are created by someone who adds you without your explicit permission. Both social networks would do better by asking rather than assuming users are interested in this group participation.
Selected sharing is also possible in Facebook Groups, which launched last fall. But the person who creates groups determines who’s in them. The entire group sees the group’s name and shared content.
The Sparks feature of Google+ encourages a person to choose things that “spark” an interest for them, whether that’s tennis or “The Closer,” and this automatically retrieves news about these subjects to one’s Google+ page.
Sparks is another example of something that exists in a different capacity on Facebook. You can type anything into the Search box at the top of the Facebook site and find information about that thing and then opt to “Like” it, which adds information about it to your news feed. Many people don’t know that searches for things other than people are possible in Facebook.
Hanging Out Online
Hangouts, or group video chats, can be initiated by anyone with a webcam, and these can be joined by anyone who knows about them. The Hangout is announced in one’s Google+ stream so others can see it and join the chat. Up to 10 people can simultaneously participate in a Hangout, and these can’t be made private. I started a Hangout but wasn’t joined by any other Google+ users.
To add a person to a Google Circle, drag and drop their photo into it.
Publicly shared content in Google+ can be seen by anyone, even people you’ve blocked, so I found it helpful to use a box labeled “View profile as…” on my profile page. Here, I could type the name of anyone else with a Google account to see what of mine was visible to that person. Or I could select “anyone on the web” to see how my Google+ page looked to people not in my Circles. I kept almost all of my information limited to my Circles.
If you receive an email notification that someone added you to a Circle in Google+, this means he or she can share with you—but you’ll only see their shared content if you opt to do so and they’ll only see what you opt to share publicly.
A stream in Google+ shows shared content including photos, videos and status updates. But if someone has recently commented on an old post, it will bubble to the top of the page like it’s new. If you’d rather not see the continuous stream of comments made on a post, you can mute the post.
Mobile for Google+
Google+ also offers mobile features like Huddle, which supports group texting—much like BlackBerry Messenger—for up to 100 people at once on any device that uses SMS. Facebook currently doesn’t have anything comparable to this. And Instant Upload lets people send any photo they capture from their Android device (running the 2.1 operating system or above) directly to Google+.
If you’re suffering from Facebook withdrawal, a browser extension from Crossrider (http://j.mp/orEmrG) can be used to display your Facebook stream in Google+.