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Google+: Innovative or Derivative? Or Both?

The obligatory Google+ post. Let me preface this by saying that, like everyone else, my opinions on G+ are going to evolve as I continue to explore and use the service. These are just my initial thoughts.

The main question that I keep coming back to is: Why?

Look, the truth is that I’m going to use G+. That’s a fact. I’m just not sure why I should be using it yet. When news broke that G+ was going to launch by invite only, I was amped up to snag an invite and start using it. I got one a few days later (thanks, Amish) and hopped on. And didn’t do anything. Looked at the beautiful design (seriously, it’s sleek and clean and makes Facebook look cluttered by comparison). Set up a quasi-profile (I don’t have the energy that I used to – I relished making my profile when I started using Facebook). Started adding some people to my Circles and did some general exploration.

And then I let it sit there for almost a week (just like a few other people).

During that week, I continued my routine of always having browser tabs with Facebook and Twitter open (probably violating every rule of the Getting Things Done philosophy) – those services fulfill definable niches in my life (Twitter for real-time updates on the world; Facebook for updates on my friends).

I’m starting to realize that G+ falls somewhere in the middle. Or maybe somewhere above.

Here’s what I do know. As of July 12, 10 million people have joined G+ with projections of reaching 20 million by week’s end and further projections that G+ will reach 100 million users faster than any other service in history. For a quick comparison, note that Facebook has 750 million users (and it took the service 22 months to reach 1 million users) and Twitter has approximately 175 million accounts (unclear if this is an accurate statistic). G+ is a freight train powered by the strongest Internet company in the world that is pouring its resources into and tying its success to the social project (this is no Google Wave or Google Buzz). A few caveats to the rapid growth of the system: 1) it shouldn’t be so surprising given how many people use Gmail, 2) the raw number of signups doesn’t matter – it’s the number of people that have come back and continued to use the service, 3) are users of existing Google products like Gmail “new” users if they sign up for G+?

But, regardless of whether I “get” what the service is about at this point, I need to be using it because it is clearly going to be a force to be reckoned with.

But, again, why?

If I’m going to use a social network at this point, it has to have some distinguishable features that provide a benefit that other networks don’t. Google is initially banking on two of its features to accomplish that goal: Circles and Sparks.

Circles

  • Inspiration: Facebook Friends; Twitter Lists
  • Benefits: Privacy; reduced “noise” that blocks out important information
  • The fundamental idea here is to structure your social graph more closely to the way you run your real world interactions. That’s an unnecessarily more complicated way of saying that +Circles allows you to divide your network. On Facebook, you share everything with every friend you have. G+ gives you the ability to choose which Circles of friends you share information with. Pictures from a Friday night can be shared so that coworkers and family members won’t see them, etc. Whether this is useful to you depends on how you view your online persona – and this breaks down into two camps. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have been champions of people having one online persona – it’s the cleanest and most transparent way to do things (this probably explains why they’ve made privacy controls so difficult to manipulate on Facebook – because deep down they truly believe that they’re right on this front). Google and many others go the opposite way – you can have multiple online personas the same way that you have varying versions of yourself in the real world. This isn’t necessarily deceitful or wrong – it’s just a fact of life. There are things you share with your close friends that you wouldn’t share with a new co-worker or a kid that you knew in middle school. I fall into the Zuckerberg camp – I have one online persona. I don’t share anything on a social network that I wouldn’t want someone to see.
  • Are Circles enough of a reason to use G+? Depends on your take on the online persona debate. Can you divide up your online persona on other networks? Not on Facebook or on Twitter. But, one point of clarification is probably necessary here. Circles are both inbound and outbound – i.e. you can divide up up who you share information with and who you consume information from. As far as I know, no other network lets you do that.
  • Maybe there’s one other important point here. Some people (validly) complain that it’s too difficult to go through and sort your friends into Circles. But you can still use Circles to your advantage even if you throw all your friends into one general Circle. You can then filter a variety of non-friend-friends (i.e. brands, companies, bands, politicians, organizations, websites, etc.)  into various Circles and peruse those separately without them overwhelming your more important contacts.
  • At some point, depending on privacy controls, it would be amazing to see who people have put in their circles. You could see which comedians Aziz Ansari shares/receives information from or which VCs Mark Zuckerberg interacts with.
  • Verdict: Given my view on what I share and with whom, it’s not surprising that I’m not a big fan of the Circles. They seem unwieldy to manage in terms of outbound messaging. I do think they are incredibly useful in terms of reading inbound messages.

Sparks

  • Inspiration: Shared links via Twitter and/or Facebook
  • Benefits: Curation via Google’s algorithm
  • This is Google’s effort to use their main asset (search) to find you content that you would otherwise spend time searching for and then share. Think of this as a Newsfeed for your interests (unsurprisingly, my first Spark was Jay-Z).
  • The usefulness of this feature depends 100% on how the algorithm provides you with information.
  • The effort here is obviously to create a time-suck (in a good way) for users. I think Google wants you to create a list of Sparks and then go to that list every day (or multiple times a day) when you want information on the things that matter to you most. Ideally, this would match up with some of your Circles and curation to your friends would become a lot easier. So, if you are a member of a co-ed soccer team and you have a circle set up for your teammates, you can easily share with all of them a news article about the US women’s national team win over Brazil.
  • The Sparks feature is also an avenue where companies and brands can potentially gain a foothold into the G+ world (creating content, etc.). Also, obviously, depending on which Sparks you follow, Google will be able to direct more relevant advertising towards you, benefiting both the user and the advertisers (and finally closing the gap on what Facebook has had a leg up on all along – your social preferences).
  • Interestingly enough, this is also very similar to an idea that Noah Brier has just started recently – Percolate – which uses an algorithm to find information for you to comment on and share.
  • Verdict: I’m a fan of this feature. Searching for interesting content is difficult – having it delivered is wonderful. And sharing it is easy using this system.

I haven’t really explored the two other main functionalities on G+: Hangouts (group video chat) and Huddle (group messaging). The inspirations behind both of those are also pretty clear: Huddle (GroupMe) and Hangouts (Facetime, Skype). I’ll get around to using those sometime soon.

The interesting part about the two marquee features of G+ is that they are derivative of the functionalities of Twitter and Facebook. Some have hailed this as a major failing of Google’s – they are being reactionary and entering other people’s turf instead of forging new ground. But, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Any move into social was going to be derivative. And I’m willing to see where these products can go simply because of the scale that Google has – think of all the possible integrative functions once Google Apps and Gmail get thrown into the mix. So much of my life is on Google right now (Gmail, Calendars, Reader) – I’d welcome a network that unified it all even more. And, for businesses…well, G+ hasn’t even launched a product for businesses yet, but with the massive scale that it has seemingly achieved, there will be opportunities for growth and reach.

Still, in the meantime, there is a lot of redundancy in using Facebook, Twitter, and, now, G+. That “redundancy” though can also be an advantage. Here’s another social network that allows a user (or brand, organization, or company) to amplify their voice. People have already talked about getting rid of their domains and hosting their own content on G+ (see Fred Wilson’s post for his take, which I happen to agree with). Also, will G+ updates eventually link to Facebook they way Tweets can?

In his recent post, Rick has already mentioned that there is too much going on with G+ and that it doesn’t feel organic to him. I agree with him to an extent – this isn’t organic; this is an all-out full-tilt approach to social. And I also disagree with, what I believe Rick’s underlying contention is: that social products are about friends. They started that way, but they’ve evolved. The cool thing about early Facebook was connecting with people that you immediately interacted with. Then it expanded and became cooler because you could connect with people that you hadn’t interacted with in years. Twitter took it a step further and made it possible to connect with people that you had never interacted with in your whole life, and most probably, could never dream of interacting with. And, for me, Twitter has become more useful and more visited that Facebook. I’m essentially describing the friend v. follower model that others have noticed. G+ seems to split the difference and grab the best of both worlds.

The question is whether splitting the difference is enough to win it all.

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