Mike Isaac

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Hangouts On Air: The Google+ Version of Public-Access TV

The beauty of local-access TV is that it has always been democratic. Whether you’re a seasoned on-camera vet or just a local yahoo with opinions, there’s little between you and the local TV-watching public.

Taking that one step further, on Monday morning Google launched Hangouts On Air, an extension of the Google+ group video chat that allows users to stream Hangouts live for anyone across the world to watch. Just like local access, you can broadcast your ideas, music or wacky opinions into the online ether and hope that at least someone is interested in what you have to say.

“This is a much more efficient and pervasive way to organize a conversation,” Hangouts product manager Nikhyl Singhal told AllThingsD in an interview. “Maybe I needed satellite trucks and switchboards for something like this in the past.”

It works the same as an existing Hangout: Host a video chat, with up to nine other people joining you in the conversation. But flip the “enable Hangouts On Air” switch, and your chat goes from private to public. What’s more, you’re not limited to broadcasting to Google+ users alone; embed the Hangout in your Web page or your YouTube channel, and folks can watch from there, too. It’s also possible to record the broadcast for replay later.

Yes, part of this is to allow the everyman the ability to speak to a larger audience, similar to the way YouTube broke new ground in the user-generated content realm back in 2005.

When giving users content carte blanche, however, the inevitable questions arise: How will Google deal with hate speech, illegal activity and porn? I’d urge you to take a spin on Chatroulette if you don’t think this is inevitable.

Though Singhal wouldn’t get into specifics, he said Hangouts already has plenty of help to deal with that from YouTube. “How do you flag copyrighted content? How do you deal with a live conversation? We’re leveraging the expertise of YouTube, who have been thinking about this problem for several years. The technology that we’ve employed — support, operational pieces, copyright rules — all of that is based on YouTube’s experience.”

Aside from potential obscenity, there’s a whole other part to the initiative: Catering to those who already have a following. Google has already hosted On Air Hangouts with big names like David Beckham, the Muppets and President Barack Obama, and the company has invested time and resources into training other large outlets — like the New York Times and Wired, to name a couple — on how to run their own On Air Hangouts.

To some degree, it can’t hurt for these stars and media outlets to give Hangouts a try. It’s free and easy publicity for them to do a quick online chat (for celebs, it’s like an online press junket for an upcoming film or TV release). And there’s also the potential to drive traffic to other pages.

Of course, Google wants to bring aboard as many people as possible. While Larry Page has no problem touting Google+ sign-up numbers, user engagement is a whole other issue. According to a comScore report released in February, users on average spend mere minutes a month on Google+, while that number is measured in hours on Facebook.

And, now more than ever, it’s important to remind users about Hangouts, one of Google’s strongest advantages over Facebook. Currently, Facebook offers Skype integration for one-on-one video chat between users, but lacks the group chat option that Google+ touts so heavily.

Thing is, people actually want to use Facebook. A lot. The jury is still out on Google+. So perhaps giving users the chance to blab about whatever they want, on air and uninhibited, will actually convince them to spend more time on the site.

At the very least, they won’t be sandwiched in between infomercials in a 2 am time slot.

(Image courtesy of quicheisinsane/Flickr, doctored by Mike Isaac)

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