You can’t say I don’t provide you with variety here, dear readers. Just yesterday I was talking about underage boys simulating anal sex in a school library in order to avoid doing work, and today I’m telling you about what may or may not be the next big thing in social networking: Google+, Google Plus, Googlyplus, G+ or whatever the hell you want to call it.
If you haven’t got in yet, don’t ask me for an invite at the moment as they’ve switched them off for now. Keep an eye on Twitter or Facebook, though — I’ll let you know if I have any more spare.
So, to business. What is Google+? Well, the cynical would say it’s a rebranded Facebook, and indeed we’ve already seen at least one article today bemoaning the fact that Google+ has some features in common with Facebook. I’m not sure why they felt the need to draw attention to this, as the features they show are pretty commonplace in all social networks.
But are those cynics right? Well… yes and no. Google+ does indeed resemble Facebook. You have a news feed, people can comment on posts, people can Like things (or “+1” in this case) and people can share content. The key difference between Google+ and Facebook is how it handles the way you interact with people. There are no “friend requests” on Google+, simply Circles. Circles is an evolution of Facebook’s Groups system, in which you can categorise your friends, acquaintances and family members into, well, categories. Then, when you post something on the network, you can choose which individuals or Circles it’s visible to — or even make it completely public. This is a nice idea. It allows people to tailor the content they spew out to different social groups without feeling that they need to have a “work” profile and a “professional” profile. So long as, of course, you remember to keep the stories about the hooker you threw up on to your “Drinking Buddies” Circle and don’t accidentally copy in your boss.
So the way you deal with people is different. But there’s more; the photo interface is simple, elegant and much better than Facebook’s slightly clumsy lightbox. While I think that the lightbox was a good addition to Facebook’s interface, many disagreed, and the fact it’s difficult to view the image and look at the comments at the same time unless you have the highest-resolution screen in the world is not great. Google+ takes a different approach. Not only does the service allow you to upload pictures at considerably higher resolution than the artifacted messes that Facebook’s compression creates, but the interface allows for simple inline commenting while still viewing the picture. It’s a simple case of putting the comments in a sidebar rather than underneath the picture, and it works beautifully well.
Then there’s the fact that the Photos feature on Google+ integrates with Google’s Picasa service. Anything you post on Picasa will be available on Google+, and vice-versa. You can even use Picnik to edit the photo, add text and generally arse about with it, save it back to Picasa (even overwriting the original if you don’t need it any more) and the modified version will be right there in your feed without you needing to refresh the page. Clever. Since Picnik is a third-party service, though, this isn’t integrated quite as well as it could be — an “Edit with Picnik” option when viewing a photo on Google+ would be nice, for example — but it’s early days yet. And Google+ allows simple iPhoto-style edits of colours and the like to be applied to pictures without having to leave the page, which is nice, particularly for those who either don’t know a lot about photo editing or don’t have the software to do anything fancy-pants.
This isn’t even getting started on the excellent Sparks feature, where you can subscribe to topics of your choice and be fed a constant stream of relevant articles — which can, of course, then be shared with the Circles of your choice if you see fit.
As you can tell, I’m quite enamoured with the new service and genuinely hope it takes off. My only worry is that it, like Facebook, might try and do too much. Facebook was an excellent service when it felt personal, but now it’s as much a home for businesses to engage with their clientèle as a means of communication, it’s becoming increasingly irrelevant to people who just want to talk to their friends. Google+’s simple elegance that it has at the moment doesn’t have any of that noise — and none of the associated spam from social games and endless “What Length of Pubic Hair Are You?” quizzes, for that matter. I’m sure it won’t stay that way, as social game and app developers are already pricking their ears up at the buzz surrounding the service, but I hope it stays that way for at least a little while. There’s definitely a market for a clean, clear social network with minimum fuss that offers something a little more than Twitter but a lot less than Facebook. And I think Google+ has the potential to be it if the developers handle it correctly.