It’s been a few weeks since Google rolled out Google+, its latest attempt at social media, to a significant number of users. If estimates are to be believed, there are now well over 10 million interaction designers using it right now, “just to
see where this all goes.”
My view of Google+ is admittedly colored by the crowd I’ve fallen in with, but the impression is hard for me to shake. Most of the conversations in my stream are still about Google+ itself. The consensus opinion, which I share, seems to be that Google has created something pretty exciting, and that people can’t wait to see how it will be used. One friend exclaimed, “I had somewhat figured my pattern of sharing on FB and on Twitter, and now I’m staring at this Google+ ‘Share what’s new…’ box thinking, this doesn’t fit into my content strategy yet!”
These “what is essay service it” reactions remind me of the reaction to Google Wave, but with a difference. Wave was complex and offered a capability that most people didn’t need on a daily basis, whereas Google+ is instantly recognizable as something similar to the social networks used by millions of people every day. It has status updates, and connections, and profiles. The obvious comparisons to Facebook and Twitter, however, gloss over the fact that Google+ is more complex. Social networks are generally designed to be used in specific ways—ways that reinforce or emulate offline relationships—and there are clues within their designs that suggest what that use is. Google+ lacks these clues, however, which makes it interesting, powerful, and confusing all at once.
People You Know Are for Connecting With
People use social networks in different ways, but core assumptions and design decisions steer most users into dominant patterns.
Facebook is for personal relationships. Connections are called “friends.” You can “like” something with a casual thumbs-up gesture. Your profile includes a spot to record your employer, but it’s designed to describe you as a person; categories include “arts and entertainment,” “activities and interests,” and “friends and family” (in which you can designate your “relationship status” for all to see).
Being a friend on Facebook is a reciprocal relationship. If you are my friend, I am your friend. It doesn’t matter who sent the invitation; once you’re friends with someone, you see them in your feed and they see you.
Similarly, LinkedIn signifies reciprocal relationships, and even prompts you to specify the nature of your relationship: colleague, manager, business partner, friend. Unlike Facebook, however, LinkedIn is for business. Your profile is your resume. There’s a place to record interests, so you can look well-rounded, but LinkedIn is focused on finding jobs, meeting people who can help you find a job, and posting things that can make you look credible when potential employers look you up. Connections are called “connections,” and are displayed in an index that lets you filter by company or industry. LinkedIn does allow you to connect with friends, but nothing about the resulting connection feels personal. Also, there is no FarmVille.
A Bird Is to Tweet
Facebook and LinkedIn are similar in that they’re designed to let you signify certain kinds of interpersonal relationships. Twitter is a different animal. A stranger who wants to connect with you on LinkedIn is probably a recruiter. On Facebook, he’s a stalker. Following someone you don’t know on Twitter, on the other hand, is commonplace. If you tweet regularly, you probably have followers you have never heard of. Some of these are people who follow large numbers in an effort to draw attention to themselves, of course, but others are people who just find what you’re saying to be
informative or entertaining. You don’t know these people, but this relationship also models one from the offline world: you are a publisher, and they are subscribers.
Whereas Facebook and LinkedIn are designed to let you signify certain kinds of relationships and describe certain aspects of yourself, Twitter’s design shapes content through other means. It simply asks “what’s happening?” and gives you 140 characters to respond. Twitter also places little emphasis on history. Your Twitter client may cache tweets in your stream, but searching at Twitter.com limits you to recent results. These limitations discourage usage of Twitter for anything that needs to hang around a while, and the result is that Twitter content consists of short, ephemeral tidbits: topical links, real-time reporting, and one-liners.
Google+ Is for … +1ing?
Enter Google+. There is more here than meets the eye. The interaction and layout is much like that of Facebook. However, with every post, it adds a decision about who gets to see what you’re doing. Its content sharing model assumes reciprocal relationships, but relies on those relationships to be defined independently by both parties. In other words, I have to choose to share something with you for you to see it, but you also have to have decided that I’m worth listening to.
The result is that the optimal usage of Google+ is harder to fathom. While Facebook and LinkedIn approximate common offline relationships, Google+ doesn’t. Or, if it does, it’s the relationship between a popular girl in high school and the legion of schmucks who are pining for her affections. They are willing to share everything with her, but since they’re not in her inner circle she doesn’t know they exist. She’s certainly not sharing anything with them, and from the outside, the losers can’t tell whether they’re being intentionally excluded or whether she’s just not interested in sharing things with anyone right now. And, of course, there’s always the chance that she’s checking them out in her “incoming” stream even though she hasn’t gotten around to adding them to a circle, even though any observer with an ounce of sense could tell them that the odds of this actually happening are exactly zero.
Perhaps Google set out to recreate high school for us, and is currently toasting its success. However, acknowledging that I may have some, um, baggage in this area, the upshot is that relationships and context on Google+ are harder to understand than they are elsewhere. Whereas I know who sees my content on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter (my friends, my work connections, and my subscribers, respectively), I have to drill into a Google+ post to find out who I have shared it with, then mentally compare that list with those people who have added me to their circles. Reading my stream thus gives me what Andrew Hinton once called the “vertigo that you get when you realize that we are living in more than one place at the same time.” Because every post may be shared with a different group of people, the context of even my own updates is built on unstable ground.
If the nature of Google+ relationships doesn’t hint at what kind of content you should put there, its minimalist design doesn’t help point you in the right direction. The white page is a canvas for whatever you’d like to create. A “circle” sounds like something that would be equally useful for organizing colleagues, friends, or pretty much anyone else. Profile attributes are fairly balanced between personal and professional. The “+1” action—Google’s “like” button—has a techie ring to it, but doesn’t suggest much beyond that, and it doesn’t even evoke a verb (though people who make unpopular comments remain nonplussed).
This neutrality is undoubtedly purposeful. After all, a key idea behind circles is being able to create different content streams that go to different groups of people. Still, that adds an extra bit of cognitive friction to each status update; the fact that you’ve created circles makes you scrutinize who should see each post. Because it doesn’t push you into using it for one thing, Google+ requires you to think about how you want to use it.
I like Google+, and if my Facebook friends were on it I’d drop Facebook in a heartbeat. However, I do wonder whether the flexibility it offers demands more thought than most people will want to give it. People are comfortable with tools that do different things. They open separate bank accounts for specific savings goals because doing so eliminates the need to remember how much has been saved for what purpose. They use different Twitter clients for different accounts to avoid posting a personal message from a business account. And, on a personal note, while I could have used Google+ to share information about an upcoming surgery in my family, I opted to create a site on CaringBridge instead. Because, well, that’s what it’s for.