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Google+, the Social Network for the Rest of Us

Most of us remember Frank Costanza's greatest creation: Festivus, the holiday "for the rest of us." Festivus was for folks who were tired of the traditional December rat race and wanted to do something different, something...less joyful.

But why are we mentioning Festivus in July? Well, because we're in the Festivus spirit thanks to Google+, the social network "for the rest of us." What follows is my own take on why Google+ might be a social network I actually stick with, so I won't be using the obnoxious royal "we" to refer to myself in this post. And, as Frank Costanza would have wanted, I'm giving this entry a Festivus theme.

Break Out the Festivus Pole!
I won't go into too much detail about how Google+ works, but if you want too much detail, check out this article. It answers just about every question you could ever have about Google+ and many you probably wouldn't have thought to ask.

Google+

Simply put, as everybody knows by now, Google+ is a social network along the lines of Facebook and Twitter. It has a sort of news feed like Facebook, and it kind of combines the "friend" function of Facebook with the "follow" model of Twitter. (Again, if you're confused, go back to that article above. Seriously.)

Now, I've been on Facebook for a few years and on the horrible Twitter for maybe a couple. I've gone into great detail here about why I hate Twitter and won't put you through that again. Needless to say, everything I said back in March still stands, despite how influential Twitter has apparently become.

Facebook, on the other hand, just faded for me. I got into it at first, for a while...but then I gradually realized that it was just kind of boring and actually a little bit soul-crushing. It's mainly a bunch of people -- many of them my good friends, but still -- screaming "look at me!" And that makes me sad for some reason. Let's all try to develop some self-assurance without craving the approval of our online "friends," shall we? Just a thought.

I'm still on Facebook, and I look at it now and then, but I only really post on it when one of my favorite sports teams (like the Rose Bowl champion TCU Horned Frogs or Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins) wins a title. Yes, I just worked more Rose Bowl and Stanley Cup references into RCPU.  

It was with some hesitation, then, and very low expectations, that I decided to jump into Google+. So far, though, I like it. It's less chummy and mundane than Facebook but also less hipster and pretentious than Twitter. Supposedly, it already has 10 million users, although it still feels kind of empty. But I hope it sticks around because there are a lot of reasons to like it.

In true Festivus spirit, though, let's talk first about what I don't like about it. (I have downloaded the Android app, but I haven't played with it much, so I'm mostly going to talk about the standard browser interface here.)

Airing of the Grievances
Not that it really matters that much, but the default interface is a little stark. It's nice that it's not too busy, but it's also not much to look at. (I actually like the colors on Twitter.) I also find the posts and comments a bit hard to read for some reason, and I haven't yet figured how to collapse a section of comments after I've expanded it. (There must be a way.)

For instance, I just read some of the 150 or so comments on a post by Robert Scoble (who seems to be way into Google+, and any tech thing he's into I should probably be into as well), so I've now got a post with a really long comments section open that I can't figure out how to close without going to a whole different page and then coming back. The comments are taking up a lot of screen space, and I have to scroll a long way to get below it to see older posts. I'm probably missing something obvious -- but it's not that obvious if I'm missing it...is it?

Parts of the interface are also a touch wonky. The Sparks feature, for example, is supposed to aggregate news headlines about particular interests -- say, college football or the NHL -- but it took me a few minutes of playing around to figure out how to make Sparks work in a way that was useful to me. It turns out to be not that hard to use, but there's kind of a learning curve to it.

Google+ Sparks
Screenshot of the Google+ Sparks feature.

If there's one recurring grievance about Google+, it's that it doesn't have the most intuitive interface I've ever seen. It's not head-slappingly obvious how everything works, and I really like for things to be super, super obvious online. I haven't even begun to tackle the Hangout video-conferencing function yet. Still, I figure Google will address all this stuff in due time.

Feats of Strength
I can live with a clunky interface if I have what I want most from a social network: control. I have that in spades with Google+. The settings on Facebook have always been a little ambiguous to me; the privacy settings have always seemed vague and any control I might have over my friends list isn't glaringly obvious.

Google+ remedies all of this. One word separates Google+ from its counterpart: circles! Yes, it deserves an exclamation point. I can drag and drop my friends into circles of my own creation and control the groups with a very simple -- and, in this case, head-slappingly obvious -- interface. I have a Friends circle, a Family circle, a Work circle, even a Who? circle for random strangers who friend (plus?) me.

If I want to send a photo from a night out with friends, I can send it to the Friend circle and not worry that a professional acquaintance is going to see it (not that I do much that I wouldn't want other people to see). I can follow Robert Scoble in my Following circle and not have to wonder whether he's going to get status posts from me bragging about, say, the Bruins (he doesn't know me and probably wouldn't care to read my thoughts on hockey).

Google+ Circle
Screenshot of the Google+ Circle editor.

With Facebook and Twitter, I'm never totally sure what's going where, who's seeing what and whom I might be inadvertently pestering. I guess there are ways to control that sort of thing on those networks, but they don't jump out at me. The very core of Google+ is its circles concept, which means the whole thing is built on the premise of control. I like that a lot. Plus, privacy and security controls are super obvious and easy to use, and I can easily look at my profile the way a random Internet viewer would see it. Steve Jobs might say that it all just works.

And then there's the integration with everything else Google. I love this. Although I have largely abandoned writing for the four personal blogs I started over the last couple of years, they're all based on Google's Blogger platform. And I use Google News to write this newsletter and have for years. Now, in the Blogger site, or in Google News or Gmail (or Google Docs, which I also use here at work), I have the Google+ toolbar always with me at the top of the screen. (And this is in Firefox, not Chrome.) It not a browser toolbar, though, so it respectfully disappears if I go to a non-Google site, leaving me plenty of screen real estate.

The Google+ toolbar (if that's even what it's called) is useful without being intrusive. I don't have to surf over to a different site, such as Facebook or Twitter, or use some goofy aggregator to see my social stuff. It's right there in the native Google interface, and when I'm done with Google+ I'm just one click away from Google News or whatever other Google product I need to use.

All of this makes me sound like a Google fanboy, but I really don't think of myself as one. (And I'm definitely not a Google "fanboi," whatever that is.) There are just some things that Google has gotten right, and finally, after multiple failures, social networking is one of them. The beauty of Google is that its products are easy to use (ahem, Microsoft) and yet they're open enough so that I don't have to commit my first born to a single vendor (Apple). That works for me.

It's a Festivus Miracle
As you probably have, I've read lately that Microsoft is considering launching a social network of its own, which hopefully won't have the ridiculous name it currently (or allegedly) bears. (Tulalip? Isn't that where Elvis Presley was born? Or is it some sort of mouth condition?) I have no idea what Microsoft is trying to do with social networking, but I would almost put money on the effort being cringe-worthy on a Zune level. Maybe not. We'll see.

In any case, Frank Costanza, were he real, would love Google+. It's the social network for the rest of us. Facebook is now the sad domain of the mundane inanities of yapping teenagers and every boring person I ever went to high school with (although if you're reading this and I went to high school with you, I'm obviously not talking about you).

Twitter is way too hipster for an un-cool guy like me and lacks depth with its infuriating character limit. It also makes people think they're witty when they're really not. Just because you can say it in 140 characters or fewer, doesn't make it a pithy comment. It just makes it short, and I generally dislike brevity (obviously).

LinkedIn is dull and stuffy -- and, although it's supposed to be like that, that's no fun. MySpace, Friendster and a bunch of other sites have gone the way of Pets.com, mostly. But Google+ is dressed-up enough to be businesslike and yet down-to-earth enough to be fun. It's all about control, easy control, which is great. It's not cool, but it's not glaringly un-cool. It's not super-professional, but it's not Facebook-casual, either. It's just right for those of us who never really fit in anywhere else. At least until the masses find it and ruin it.

Tell me what you think of Google+ in the comments below, at lpender@rcpmag.com, at +Lee Pender (I think that's how it's noted) or, if you don't want me to actually read what you write, at @leepender on Twitter.

Posted by Lee Pender on July 21, 2011 at 11:57 AM


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