A decade ago, most of us had never even heard of the idea of a social network. Today, after the very phrase Social Network was used as the title of a movie, most of us rely on social networks to stay in touch with our family, friends, and colleagues. You can’t escape social networking. Switch on the TV, and odds are the news anchor will be reminding you to follow them on Twitter.
You can’t connect a billion people without having them form some long-term habits for sharing and online interaction. We’ve all learned how to use Twitter and Facebook, so starting over with a new network can be daunting. Google+ has taken the world by storm over the past couple of days, and a number of people were able to get early access to it. After using it, it’s easy to see that Google has put an incredible amount of time and thought into designing their answer to Facebook. It brings many of the social features you’d expect from a network together in a way that just might make it the ideal network.
Whether you’re already on Google+ and would like to discover some of its hidden features, or are curious what it will bring once you finally get an invite, here’s a detailed look at all of Google+’s features and the changes it may bring to your online social life.
If you’re lucky enough to get a Google+ invite, it’s incredibly simple to sign up, assuming you already have a Google account. While you can sign up with any email address, you’ll need to have a Google account to actually start using Google+. Additionally, you can’t use a Google Apps for Domains email address in Google+, which was frustrating to me as I use my own domain’s email via Google Apps by default. Instead, you need to sign in with a normal @gmail.com email address, and then if you want access to other email accounts, you can add them via the top menu.
Once you’re signed in with your Google account, click the link in your email, and you’re ready to go. Confirm your name, add your gender and optionally change your profile picture, accept the terms, and Join.
Seconds later, you’ll see your new Google+ welcome screen. It gives you a quick overview of the new features along the top, suggests some friends from your Google Contacts on the right, and reminds you to complete your profile from the bottom. The Welcome page does a surprisingly good job at giving a quick orientation for such a complex network, and includes videos about all of the features. One major change you’ll notice is your profile and share buttons on the top Google navigation bar. Once you’ve activated your Google+ account, that’ll be a standard part of your Google experience on all Google sites.
Just like Facebook, Google+ encourages you to share a variety of info about yourself with your friends and the world. If you’ve already invested time into adding your interests, sites, and more to your Google Profile, they’re all brought straight over into Google+. If not, you can quickly add anything you want, or not: it’s your choice. You’re only really forced to include your name.
One thing you might want to change, though, is your profile picture. Google+ uses higher resolution pictures than Google Profiles, so if you already had a profile picture, chances are it’ll look grainy in Google+. That’s fine, though: you owe it to yourself to change your profile just to see the animation as your new picture is added. It’s one of many cute touches that will be sure to delight the masses and perhaps make them decide Google+ is worth leaving Facebook for, even if it doesn’t have Farmville.
At its core, Google+ is built around Circles. Circles are Google’s take on friend lists, and are a great way to divide your network into sub-networks of like interests. I find myself sharing more tech related items with my Twitter followers, and more personal and family items with my Facebook friends. I then follow a wide range of industry insiders and more in Twitter lists. In Google+, I can instead add family to a Family circle, friends to a friends circle, tech fans into a tech circle, Envato colleagues into a work circle, and more. And if my brother happens to like tech, I could add him to my tech circle and my family circle.
It sounds like a lot of work, though, to organize your friends. At first, it is a fair bit of trouble, but Google has worked to make it fun. Select all the people you want to add to a circle and drag them down to the circle you want, and their name cards will bundle together with a paperclip to make it obvious what you’re doing. It’s a cute touch that’s actually easy to use. Facebook has had lists for some time now, but few people use it since it takes several clicks per friend you want to add. With Google+, a couple clicks is all it takes to add tons of friends to circles.
Best of all, once you’ve setup the circles you want, you can easily add new friends to lists in one click. Hover over their name card, and you can select the circles you want to add them to directly. This works more like Twitter following than Facebook friends, since you can add anyone to your circles, whether they’ve added you or not. However, if they’re private and mostly share updates with their private circles, you won’t see much action from them.
One slightly disappointing thing is that Google+ has no integration with other social networks. The only way to add contacts is from your Google Contacts you’ve already added or by entering email addresses or names individually. But, this is not entirely surprising, and may change in the future once it’s more open.
Sharing and the Stream
Now that you’ve added some friends and colleagues to your Google+ circles, it’s time to start sharing. Just like every other network, Google+ is designed for you to share what you’re doing with others. It works much more like Facebook in this, though, as you can upload pictures and videos, or add links, directly to your updates. You can also add your location, which is turned on by default in the mobile web app. Finally, you can choose to share your update only with certain circles, with all of your circles, with extended circles (all of your circles and all of your friends’ circles), or with the the whole world with a public update.
The main page, called your Stream, will show posts from others, with inline pictures, videos, link previews, and comments. You can click 1+ to show you like a post, or you can share public and semi-public posts with your own network. New posts and comments show up automatically in near-realtime, which can be either terribly distracting or very useful, depending on whether you’re having an active conversation or not. Post are bumped back to the top of your list whenever new comments are added to them, but if you’re tired of seeing a particular update, you can select to mute the post from its drop-down menu on the right. You can also navigate through the posts in your stream with standard keyboard shortcuts such as j and k that you’ve likely used in Gmail and Google Reader.
One very neat feature is that you can edit your posts and comments anytime after you’ve left them. We’ve all quickly tabbed out an update on Facebook or Twitter only to delete it and correct a mistake. With Google+, that’s a thing of the past. This reminds you somewhat of Google Wave, except now you can only change what you’ve said, not what others have said. The only problem is, if you drastically change what you wrote, it could make the conversation somewhat awkward if there were already other comments…
Another nice feature is Google’s implementation of mentioning others in a post. Similar to @replies on Google, adding @ before someone’s name lets you select their name from a list and link to them in the comment. This will send them a notification that you’ve mentioned them even if they’ve muted your post. Facebook has already had a similar feature for a while, but with Circles, I found this even more useful.
Status updates are nothing new, and even organizing your friends into circles isn’t that much different than Facebook lists. One of the more unique features of Google+, though, is Hangouts. Hangouts are group audio and video chats where you can bring your friends together even if you live around the world. Group video chat is nothing new, but Hangouts works much better than any other group video chat I’d ever tried. Before you can get started, though, you’ll need to install the Google Voice and Video Plugin if you haven’t already.
Once that’s done, you can start a new Hangout and invite your circles or individual friends to join in. Or, you can jump right into another Hangout that’s already going on. Before you jump in, Google+ gives you a quick preview of how you look in the video if you have a webcam turned on, and shows you who’s already chatting. Do note that you can only be chatting in one Hangout at once, so if you get invited to another Hangout while you’re chatting, you’ll have to leave the first one before you can switch.
Once you’re logged in, Google Hangouts will let others in the chat know that you’re there. You’ll see a large video of the chatter currently talking on the top, and smaller thumbnail videos of everyone else underneath. Hangouts does a great job at recognizing who’s currently talking, and it automatically switches the top video when others start talking. Or, if you only want to see one video feed, click on the thumbnail to only see that video in the larger view.
The amazing thing is the quality of Hangouts. I was in a Hangout with a dozen or so chatters this morning, and the video and audio came through clearer than Skype one-on-one video chats usually do. It just worked, which is amazing with video chat. The only problem is, Hangouts used a lot of memory, and crashed various browsers several times during our chat. Still, for an in-browser chat with a dozen people, it worked surprisingly good.
Along the bottom, you can start a text chat with the group that you’re chatting with, or show a YouTube video to everyone. Do note, when you start a YouTube video, it’ll play for everyone in the chat. Additionally, you can mute your volume and turn off your video, and you can also mute others in the chat. Oddly enough, if you mute someone in the chat, they’re muted for the entire group, and can un-mute themselves. I assumed the chat would get too noisy with so many people, and that we’d need to mute some people to have a real conversation. Surprisingly, though, Hangouts did a great job with the audio, and everything sounded great even with a large group.
Alternately, if you prefer text chat, Google+ includes the original Google Talk text chat that you’ve likely already used in Gmail. You can chat with your existing Gmail contacts even if they’re not on Google+, even while you’re talking in a Google Hangout in another window. This gives you the best of both worlds. Full voice, video, and text chat with groups in Hangouts, or one-on-one text chat right in your Stream just like you’re used to in Facebook.
Skype, Aim, and MSN: it’s been nice knowing you. If Google ever adds screen sharing too, we’ll be ready to say goodbye to GoToMeeting as well!
Yet another unique feature in Google+ is Sparks. Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with certain niche topics you’re interested in, so Google built Sparks to give you automatic updates about the things you love. Just enter a topic, and Sparks will bring you highlights from it right to your account. If your friends aren’t interesting enough, it’s a way to make Google+ worth visiting still. However, Sparks is essentially the same as Google Alerts, and the quality of the sites it unearths may or may not be that great. If you’ve already got a curated list of RSS feeds you keep up with in Google Reader, you’re likely better off not worrying about Sparks.
Your Social Search
As we mentioned before, your Google navigation bar will now show your Google+ info on all Google sites. Even from the default Google.com search homepage, you can see your notifications, add new followers to your circles, reply to comments, and more. Click the Share box to add a status update, picture, or link and share it with your circles. Additionally, the 1+ button that was added to search results in Google recently is now part of Google+. Any sites you 1+ will be shared on your Google+ stream. It’s essentially the new Like button for Google, and I for one find it disheartening to see yet another social button get added to sites.
Tweak Your Google+
If there’s one thing I didn’t like about Google+, it was the email notifications. Comment on a popular thread, and your inbox will be swamped with message after message letting you know others commented. The good news is, you can change this. Head over to your new Google Accounts settings page, and you can tweak your email and SMS message notifications, as well as your privacy and language settings and more. From the privacy page, you can even see how your Google+ profile looks to others, similar to a feature long included in Facebook that can help you make sure you feel fine with what others see on your page. There’s enough options to make Google+ fairly secure and specific to your needs, but they’re all much easier to find than they are in Facebook.
Take Your Network With You
After all the time you invest in your social networks, some day, a better network may come along and you might want to switch. Unlike Twitter and Facebook which keep rather tight reigns on your data, Google+ lets you export everything from your account. You can download a zip of your images, status updates in HTML format, contacts in vCard format, and more. Just head to the Google+ Export page, and you can choose exactly what you want to take. Even if you don’t want to leave Google+, this data could be used for a lot of interesting things, such as making a scrapbook of your updates over time.
If you tried out Google+ and didn’t like it, though, you can delete your account entirely from a comical domain: https://plus.google.com/downgrade/. Deleting your account might actually be an upgrade if you truly wouldn’t use it, but I digress. The good thing is, Google lets you delete Google+ from your account without deleting your Google account, which is very good considering that many of us use Gmail and more for our daily work. Google’s worked hard to maintain user’s trust with these features, though, and it’s very commendable they built data export and account deletion in from day 1.
While Facebook and Twitter have tweaked their design and added new features over time, Google+ includes a beautiful design and an incredible amount of features from day 1. With extra touches such as the Hangouts video chat and an option to download your Google+ data, it’s easily a step beyond what we’ve come to expect from social networks. That said, the birrage of features can be overwhelming, and Twitter’s 140 character simplicity seemed refreshing after spending a morning in Google+.
One thing’s for sure. Gooogle+ represents the start of some of the most sweeping changes the search giant has ever seen. Whether it thrives or fails, the new design style and features are bound to live on in Google’s products and its competators’. But there’s no reason it will neceserally fail. If enough users start sharing on Google+, and it becomes as integrated into our cultural fabric as Facebook and Twitter, it could easily become the one social network you use for everything.
Are you looking forward to trying out Google+, or are you already on it? Or, have you stayed out of the social game so far and don’t plan to jump in? We’d love to hear your thoughts on Google+ in the comments below. Also, if you have any questions about it, feel free to ask!