Terrence Lockyer

Google+: First Impressions

In General on July 12, 2011 at 8:11 am

I’ll say this to begin with:  I have a humanities background, and am not a person who knows a great deal about the workings of digital technology (just a moderately competent end user), nor a habitual early-adopter, nor user of every second service that comes along;  however, I am a frequent user of the web, Twitter, Facebook, and email, including several fairly active Listserv lists (less digital native, more digital dinosaur, I’m reliably informed).  I thought I’d jot down a few early impressions of using Google+ mainly because, if it is to become a serious feature of the social media field, it is going to need to attract and retain people more or less like me.

My initial impression is that it combines in one service some of the features (and therefore the advantages and disadvantages) of existing social media, and a few of blog platforms, and might be especially suited to attracting users among those who find themselves frustrated or deterred by particular aspects of existing services, notably Twitter and Facebook.

Organization:  circles + streams

On Google+, the basic organization is around what are called “circles”;  that is, groups into which you can place other users, but the titles and constituents of which are visible only to you.  One user can be placed in more than one circle.  It is worth emphasizing that these are not like Facebook groups (to which any friend can add you, and which function as communal message boards);  rather, they are the primary method by which a Google+ user organizes other users for the purposes of reading posts (like Twitter lists) and of posting (like Facebook lists), and they are private to the user who creates them.  Circles resemble Twitter following and are different from Facebook friending, in that the relationships between users can be asymmetric:  you can add a user to your own circles in order to follow their public posts (and any sent to you or to a circle of theirs including you), but that user need not reciprocate, nor even approve your following them (though they will be notified that you have added them, and can block you, as with a [public] Twitter account).

By default, your profile displays a list of users whose accounts are in your own circles (like Twitter’s “Following” list), and a list of users who have placed you in their circles (like Twitter’s “Followers” list), but neither is more than a bare list of users with links to their profiles, and you can switch off completely display of either list or of both.  You can also restrict visibility of the first list (those in your circles;  the equivalent of a Twitter profile’s “Following” list) to other users who are in your own circles.  This is a good option, as it will allow people you follow to look at your profile and see other users you follow, and they might be interested in.  It’s worth emphasizing that, even if you leave both lists on public display, neither reveals the names or membership of your individual circles, and there is no way another user can see how you have categorized them.  All they will know is that you have them in your collective list of people followed.

Once logged in, your home page defaults to the main stream displaying content from everyone in your circles, but you can also view a separate stream for each of your circles (not unlike Twitter lists) and another for “Incoming” posts, which contains anything directed by users not in your own circles to you individually or to a circle to which they have added you (this is somewhat like the @Mentions tab on Twitter, though of course the latter also contains tweets from people you follow, and is based on individual tagging rather than distribution to a group of users).

These separate streams seem a useful organizational feature if you have limited time or wish to read updates only on a specific topic, or from a particular group of people.  They essentially replicate as part of the core functionality of the service the filtering capabilities of some applications for Twitter and Facebook, such as Tweetdeck.  They also provide a way of filtering out high-volume posters whom you do want to follow:  simply move them out of the circle their posts are cluttering, into a new circle where you can read them when you choose.

You also have the ability, via a drop-down at top right of each post, to “mute” individual posts, hiding them from your stream and turning off further notifications for them:  a useful way to block out heavily commented posts in which you have no (further) interest.  The same drop-down offers the option to report abuse or to block the user responsible for the post.

The one major criticism I have is that in all streams (as I believe on Google Buzz, which I never used, and something like the Facebook “Top news” feed), posts seem to be moved to the top each time they receive a new comment.  This makes a kind of sense in that the chronologically most recent activity is at the top of the stream, and it has the obvious benefit of showing what is attracting attention, but the severe disadvantage of concealing posts that attract less attention.  As your network expands, it will effectively drown out less commented upon content in favour of a few highly popular or controversial posts, especially on the combined stream.  It also seems quite unnecessary:  if you wish to follow a particular post’s comments, you can simply comment and then receive notifications of further activity, or even bookmark the post (clicking on the timestamp of a post offers a permalink).  [UPDATE 2011/07/20 at 19h16 GMT:  The evidence of recent days suggests that posts are now appearing (more) chronologically, so the fairly common criticism I make here may have been heeded.]

It might be observed that you can always move noisy users to separate circles (and thereby streams);  however, they will still clutter and render less useful your combined stream, which is the one displayed on signing in, and contains everything from everyone in any of your circles.  It seems to me that if a central feature of a service is designed in a way that makes it good advice to avoid that feature, then the feature is simply not as good as it could be.  I would like to see an option (perhaps a new stream?) to show posts in chronological order of the timestamp on the original post, as in a Twitter stream or Facebook’s “Most Recent” stream (though even that has deteriorated in usefulness by grouping together posts from particular services).

Another issue – a surprising one given Google’s history, and one sure to be remedied in time – that compounds the problem with post order in streams, is the apparent absence of a means to search within a stream.

Activity:  posting + visibility

Google+ posting works much like Facebook:  at the top of each stream is a box through which you can post text, an image, a link, or a video clip;  and you can tag other users by preceding their names with + or with @, producing a link to their profile (as with Twitter @replies and @mentions, or Facebook tagging).  Perhaps the most significant differences from Facebook are the ability to add basic formatting (_word_ produces italics, *word* bold, -word- strikethrough, and these can also be used in combination), and the ability to edit after posting, allowing blog-like updating of posts and comments (with the timestamp updating to show both the original posting time, and that of the last edit).  Another blog-like feature is the ability to turn off comments on a specific post.

A third difference from Facebook is the ability to remove the description automatically associated with a link.  Apart from the obvious advantages in making links cleaner and allowing posters to foreground their own description or comment, this is a useful way to deal with the significant percentage of links that on Facebook come with irrelevant, garbled or misleading descriptions, including ones containing the text of a comment on the original page.  As on Facebook, the linking tool will generate a thumbnail, and you can scroll through the options, or remove the thumbnail, using the arrows and the X that are shown across the top of the thumbnail prior to posting.

Somewhat as on Facebook, you can limit the visibility of your posts:  they can be public (which means visible to the entire web on your profile, like a public Twitter stream or Facebook profile), or restricted to specific users, members of specific circles, or members of what are called “extended circles”.  The last is a little like Facebook’s “friends of friends”:  a post restricted to “extended circles” is visible to all users in your own circles, together with all users visible on the profiles of those users as members of their own circles.

Visibility is set for each individual post.  When posting, if you use the box on the main stream, Google+ defaults to the last setting you used, while, and quite usefully, if you enter a post via the box on a specific circle’s stream, visibility will default to that particular circle.  Once posted, each post is labelled “Public” or “Limited”, and if the latter, you can click this tag to see the number of users to whom it is visible, and the avatars of some.

Again as on Facebook, or Twitter with its built-in Re-Tweet function, you can reshare posts by other users (including text-only posts, which cannot be reshared on Facebook), but with the difference that the original poster can control independently of other settings whether a specific post may be reshared or not.  Also useful is the fact that, if you click “share” to reshare a post that is not marked for public visibility, a pop-up reminds you of that and encourages you to be “thoughtful” about whom you share it with.

There is no dedicated private messaging function;  but you can send a private message by tagging the recipient, restricting visibility to that user, and disabling resharing.  [UPDATE 2011/07/12 at 17h06 GMT:  You can also send content to people who are not on Google+ (whether they’ve been invited or not, and whether they join or not), in one of two ways.  The first is to specify their email address among the recipients of a post;  the second is to add them to a circle using their email address, after which, when you create a post for that circle, you will have the option to send it to any non-user(s) via email.]

As on Facebook, there is the ability to “Like” a post, using a small “+1” button beneath it, and the same holds for comments, with a “+1” button appearing next to the timestamp as you mouse over a comment.  Slight confusion might arise from the fact that a user’s profile also has a “+1’s” tab, but this does not show “+1’s” within Google+;  rather, it collects your clicks on the Google “+1” button on external sites.

Opinions:  pros + cons

In my view, circles, circle streams, the “public” posting option, and the post-level controls (which both add functions not available on Facebook, and suggest that Google has learned from the initial privacy and visibility issues with Buzz) make Google+ the best of the three social services I’ve used in terms of the range of posting options, and also potentially more useful than Facebook for educators and others who might wish to use more full-featured social tools but also need to keep parts of their networks separate.  This is theoretically possible on Facebook (using lists), but on Google+ the availability of separate reading streams and simple, intuitive per-post visibility controls make keeping your interactions in the right locale quite easy.

It has been observed, for example by Rob Cottingham, that the one thing not yet easily done is to share something only with the people who are common to two or more of your circles, the only current option being to create additional circles for such overlaps.

Overall, Google+ seems to offer users something combining the functionality of Twitter, Facebook, and blogging platforms.  Public posts, like those on Twitter, are a way to share content that will be visible to users and non-users alike (like public Twitter streams), but with comment threads like Facebook’s or blogs’.  As on Twitter or a blog, public posts may form the basis of conversations to which any interested user can contribute, but because this will be on the comment thread below the post, conversation is easier to follow than it often is on Twitter, where, even if somebody has the foresight to invent a hashtag early on, not all respondents may use it, and even if they do, threads can become hard to follow as users vary their @replying, hashtags, and so on.

Because visibility is set per post on Google+, rather than in the first instance via global settings (as on Facebook and Twitter), there is the blog-like ability to receive contributions from a wider range of users, but my impression, at least, is that the barriers to commenting will be lower in a social media setting than on a traditional blog (not least because blog comment systems often require additional logins or other steps to control spam).  In future, and given the right tools, I could see a blog or news site carrying feeds of Google+ comments on posts or articles, much as they now do Twitter streams.

One exception, and a strange one, to all these controls on visibility is that for the “gender” field on your Google+ profile:  there is no way to prevent it from telling the world that you have chosen to identify yourself as “female”, “male”, or “other”.

Things:  seen + unseen

I ought to add something on the user interface, which I must say I like.  At present, it is clean and fairly intuitive (to me, at least:  after just a couple of days, I generally know where to find what I’m after), and doesn’t suffer from using a default font that is too small (for which Facebook has been widely and ineffectually criticized).  Links for all streams are down the left, buttons for the home (combined) stream, your photos, profile, and circles at the top.  Aside from the menus produced by buttons on users’ profiles, there’s an animated drag-and-drop procedure for moving users into, between, and out of circles (and I’ll show my age by saying that I was reminded of a rotary telephone).  Global account and privacy settings are available via a drop-down menu from your name at top right, and the cog icon at extreme top right offers direct access to your Google+ settings (including notifications) and help (which I have thus far found straightforward and useful, a notable difference from Facebook’s, which as often there is based on bad guesses at what users want, rather than a simple route to what they do).

One slight oddity, at least for those used to Facebook, is to do with the notification icon:  like Facebook’s, this produces a drop-down list of recent notifications, but unlike on Facebook, clicking on a notification does not take you directly to the post concerned in the full browser window.  Rather, the post is loaded initially in the notification drop-down, and you must click its timestamp in order to load it in the current browser window.  On balance, and once you know how it works, this seems sensible, as although it doubles the clicks needed to view a post in the full browser window, it avoids having to load a post if you do not wish to interact further with it, and you can in fact do so in the drop-down preview without ever loading in the full browser window.  In addition, unlike Facebook’s, the Google+ notification screen (which is accessible as a stream via a link on the left of the home screen) shows full posts, which is useful for distinguishing to what notifications refer, and when previewing a post in the drop-down notification panel, you also have controls to browse back and forth through posts about which there are notifications.

Overall, and on the basis of only a few days’ use with limited numbers in my circles, Google+ seems a good effort, and I can see myself using it to keep up with posts from people I know only by reputation (and so wouldn’t try friending on Facebook, while several are too voluminous for my main Twitter stream), as well as interacting with those I know from other parts of online or offline life:  it’s already been the venue for conversations I wouldn’t have had on Twitter, and the “+1” system adds Facebook’s ability to show appreciation for a post even if one has nothing to say in comments and does not choose to reshare.

The one considerable barrier (apart from privacy concerns that were exacerbated by the bungled launch of Google Buzz) to its success could be timing.  Newcomers to social media are likely to go where those they know already are;  heavy users will have invested time and effort into existing accounts, may be reluctant to add yet another service to which they must pay attention, and may be deterred by the effort of having to build networks all over again (though I must say that mine has built fairly quickly and painlessly).  Finding (via search, and provided they have filled out basic profile details) and adding users on Google+ is quite simple (clicking on a username or a button on a user’s profile brings up a pop-up with a list of your circles, and a single click on a checkbox adds the user to that circle), as is managing circles with the interface mentioned above, but there is no easy way to search Google+ for your networks from other social sites (the only import options being for Yahoo! and Hotmail).  Even (or perhaps especially) once the field testing stage is over, there will be a challenge in getting users there to begin with, and like any social site, Google+ can succeed only if enough people you’re interested to hear from and converse with are on it.

+PS.  I do not comment here on the chat function, or on two of the most distinctive features of Google+, the “Hudddle” group texting function for users of the Android app (since I don’t have an Android phone), and the “Hangout” function on the website allowing you to conduct a group video chat with specified users (since empathy dictates that I not use a webcam).

 

UPDATE 2011/07/26 at 10h00 GMT:  As will be clear from the above, I like many aspects of Google+, and can see it becoming an important venue for communication and discussion;  however, at present I cannot really recommend that anyone who is not already there accept an invitation, especially if they have a name that might be considered unusual by a Google employee, or if they use a pseudonym.  This is because of the well publicized issues with Google’s policy that users of Google+ must have profiles under their “real names”, and the fact that one’s Google+ profile cannot be made wholly private.  An excellent Guardian blog post by GrrlScientist articulates the reasons for my advice:  if Google believes your name not to be “real”, you risk having your accounts across Google services disabled, with no effective appeals process;  and, while there have been reports that Google is now “learning“, taking a more cautious approach, and restoring some disabled accounts, until they establish a clear, rational, and fair set of rules, with an efficient appeals procedure, they have not dealt with the issue in anything like a satisfactory way.  The present policy is so harmful not only to people (writers, artists, actors, musicians) who are far more widely known by pseudonyms than by “real” names, but also to people who need to use pseudonyms in order to avoid serious harm to themselves or those close to them (members of sexual minorities or other persecuted groups, people who have been harassed or abused online or offline, people who face threats to their security or livelihood if their communications are visible to certain parties, educators who might not wish or be allowed by their employers to have their students contact them on so-called “social” sites), that it can only be described as demonstrating a blinkered view and a vast lack of empathy on the part of Google’s policy makers.  I hope that Google will see sense and reform the policy, and am glad to hear they are considering it;  however, until there is a clear, fair, and equitable set of rules and procedures, this has to count as a significant mark against Google+.

 

UPDATE 2011/07/28 at 02h54 GMT:  It is worth adding a link here to the long Google+ post by Kee Hinckley on the pseudonymity issue, which came to my attention through a reshare by Gina Trapani.  I should note explicitly that, because these are both set to “Public” visibility, one does not require a Google+ account, or to be signed in, to view them.  This “Public” option seems to me both a great virtue of Google+, and a very strong reason for which pseudonymity ought to be permitted, as it will give more users the confidence to make and to comment on posts visible to the whole web.

 

UPDATE 2011/08/22 at 11h30 GMT:  It’s more than a month since the problems with Google+’s “real names” policy were well documented, and, while there are reports of limited progress (mainly in the form of warning users before deleting their accounts, and now the roll-out of a verification programme for some users), the essential issues seem to remain.  The most recent evidence of this is a warning over her name reported by Violet Blue, a well known personality online, who is in fact using her legal name.  She is fortunate to be in a position to complain to a wide audience, which will probably mean that Google will realize and correct its error.  Many around the world, whose names either can’t satisfy Google’s narrow expectations (e. g., their real, legal name has only one word, or does not accord with the dominant Anglophone practice of using a clear forename and surname) or merely look strange to the employees of a technology company in the USA due to said employees’ own ignorance and narrow worldview, will not be so lucky.  Google ought to realize how badly they’ve misstepped here, since even loud (and privileged) defenders of their policy like Robert Scoble are now withdrawing from their previous positions and suggesting the policy is unworkable and should be relaxed.  It remains to be seen whether Google will respond, and if so how.  This is a great pity.  Google+ from the start was superior to Facebook in several ways, and has the potential to be a flexible platform for many different kinds of users, from those wishing to interact with close personal acquaintances, to those with established public personae and large audiences.  It should be a service open to all who wish to use it in non-abusive ways, but is at present hamstrung by loyalty to a policy that was fatally flawed in conception, that has been incompetently executed, and that is not in fact suited to the stated aim of enhancing community and authenticity, not least because it silences interesting, authentic, worthwhile comment by people who do not have or for various good reasons do not wish to post under conventional Anglophone-style names.

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