Since the July release of Google+, I have struggled to find a use for the service. Don’t get me wrong, Google+ is actually a really well designed network. The UI is clean, I love Circles which realistically display our relationships with others, and it has some pretty good integration into the rest of Google’s services. Google has made a wonderful social networking platform with tons of potential, arguably more elegant and better designed than Facebook. Yet, I can’t find a damn reason to use it.
Facebook, with its 700 Million+ users, is living proof of the economic power of “network externalities.” The service becomes only as useful as the number of people who use it. Seeing as how that number is more than twice the population of the United States, I’d say Facebook has a pretty damn strong network. With upwards of 1000 friends, I’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and clicking “accept” on friend requests on Facebook to just pick up and move to a new system. The fact is that I have upwards of 4 years of networking locked into Facebook’s closed walls. It’s hard to move on, especially when the new system requires a Google Account. It’s hard to move on from Facebook. Love it or hate it, Facebook is the definition of “ubiquitous” and though often a kludge of a system, it gets the job done.
But I think there is a real point to Google+.
Google+ is the first social network in memory that seems…. mature (professional networks like LinkedIn not withstanding). It’s just clean. Simple. Professional. I think one of the reasons I find myself unable to use Google+ in the same way as Facebook is because it doesn’t feel like it should be used for such sophomoric interaction. Facebook emerged onto the scene when social networking was just escaping its infancy. People still had a hard time figuring out just what to use it for. Facebook’s evolution is living proof of the fact that social networking has moved away from college campuses and focusing on user information and now is directed towards sharing information with others. Still, Facebook feels like an adolescent in terms of its overall functionality. A hodgepodge of conflicting design choices from over the years that lead to an inconsistent product. It works, but never elegantly.
Google+ doesn’t feel that way. It feels fresh. And that’s what Google+ can be: a fresh start for social networks. Many of us joined Facebook in high school or college over 5 years ago, just as we started to realize the perils of online identities and internet safety. So naive we were to the lurking threat of employers or school officials seeing incriminating information on our Facebook pages. Over the years some have grown wise to maintaining a positive internet presence, but often it is harder than it seems. Our Facebook identities, much like Facebook itself, remains littered with the remnants of ill-conceived choices in our presentation. For myself at least, I have worked hard to keep my profile as clean as possible from the very beginning, but there are always looming ethical challenges to having a public internet identity.
My summer job for the past three years has been as a camp counselor. It is a job I care deeply about and every year I make ever stronger connections with the kids that I take care of. They look up to me and want to befriend me, so it is only natural that every summer I return home to dozens of friend requests from kids ranging from 12 to 15 in age. It is a wide span of time in terms of development and maturity. Conversations I have with my friends that they may see can be appropriate for some of my kids, and not for others. It’s an ethical issue that the officials at my camp have to deal with every year. Internet contact with minors is, in general, a very risky endeavor. So far I think I have done a good job and maintaining a universally appropriate visage for my peers and campers a like. Somehow I feel Google+ really could alleviate these issues. For one, the use of Circles gives me established filters for my posts and conversations. Facebook is trying to replicate this but has integrated it into the existing, though once defunct, network system. Circles work a lot better because they are sorted on a per-user basis, and do not require confirmation from the sorted individual. Further more, Google+ simply avoids a lot of the risqué cruft that can pop up from our immature use of Facebook.
Google+ may have actually emerged at one of the best times for social networking. It is a fresh break away from the morass of Facebook, a system that had to evolve with us. Now we know what we use social networking for; we know how to be appropriate in our public virtual lives. Google+ is made for that. If Google can maintain that message, and if users can learn to appreciate that fact, then Google+ could have a strong future ahead of it. A mature and proper future.