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Taking Google+ for a Test Drive

Google’s past dalliances with social networking have not been successful. Between Orkut, Buzz and Wave, to say social networking is Mountain View’s Achilles heel would be pretty accurate. However, that hasn’t stopped the company from trying and, this year, newly-appointed CEO Larry Page made a ballsy move in announcing employee bonuses will partially depend on the company’s success in the social arena. So, will Google employees be getting their bonuses this year? We think yes.

The search giant this week launched a full assault on Facebook in the form of Google+. Access is via invitation only so a lot of people haven’t yet had the chance to give G+ a shot. While the videos Google put out explaining each feature are decent, they’re a little confusing without context. I received my invite yesterday morning and went hands on with the service to see if I could figure out how things work.

Adding Friends (and Strangers)

From the short time we’ve spent with the service, it feels like a mashup of Facebook and Twitter in that it incorporates both people you do and don’t know. Google+’s Circles feature allows you to very quickly and easily separate out your friends and followers into different groups. You can then choose to share content with specific Circles or people (even just one person), all of your Circles or even the entire web. You can make your own Circles too, so sharing game times, practices and photos with just your softball team is easy and the rest of us don’t have to feel guilty because we bailed after one game.

It’s a level of functionality that certainly exists within Facebook if you really want it. Through the use of groups, pages and custom status updates, you can pretty much achieve the same thing within your network of Facebook friends. Unfortunately, Facebook users have not had these selective sharing features since launch -- they were introduced over time, as Facebook evolved. As a result, most either aren’t familiar with them or couldn’t be bothered to create groups and divide their 200 contacts up accordingly.

I mentioned something earlier about 'followers' and sharing with the internet, and it’s true, Google+ is definitely not just for friends; there's a very public, community aspect to it if you choose to embrace it and it can be confusing when you first arrive. I wasn’t sure what the idea was when I signed up. Facebook encourages you to only add people you know, while Twitter encourages you to follow all people you are interested in hearing from or about. Google+ is a mix of both and offers a level of control that leaves you comfortable with the set up. For example, I invited our own Kevin Parrish to join G+, and he quickly accepted and added me to his Circles (I can’t see which one he added me to, those are for his eyes only). I received a notification to this effect; I am now in Kevin’s Circles, but he is not in mine because I have not 'followed' or added him to one. From my Circles dashboard, I could add Kevin to as many or as few circles as I wanted. I could also add him to none. If I chose to add him to no circles, he would still see my public updates, but any updates restricted to friends, family, tech, acquaintances, etc., would be hidden from him and I would see none of his updates. I chose to add Kevin, because I am lovely and I want to see what he has to say. Now he can see anything I post to my ‘Friends’ or ‘Nerds&Geeks’ Circles.

If, for some strange reason, I didn't like Kevin and wasn't comfortable with him being near me (even on the internet), I could block him. He would still be able to see stuff I post publicly and I would remain in his Circle (he would not be prevented from 'following' my public posts) but he would be removed from all of my Circles and my extended Circles -- people who are one degree removed from me -- and he would not be able to comment on anything I post or mention/tag me in his own posts.

Hanging Out, Huddling, +1ing, Building Walls and Turning Down the Noise

So, Circles is the basic add friends/follow tool. What about the rest of it? One of the features proving to be the most popular (or at least garnering the most 'This is so awesome!' updates) is Hangout. Hangout allows you to start video chats with up to 10 people at a time. Who's allowed to join is completely dependent on who you've 'shared' that hangout with. If it's public, anyone (and I mean anyone -- Larry Page and Sergey Brin were floating around my feed yesterday afternoon) can join. You can also start a Hangout with just your colleagues, just your family or a couple of specific people. While hanging out, you can watch YouTube videos (as a group) and type away in a shared chat window. Though the chat function seemed gratuitous at first, I quickly realized it's important for when people are talking over each other and everyone wants to be heard at the same time. I tried it with just two other people. I imagine things get a lot noisier with ten participants. Oh, and for those wondering, the user in the big window changes depending on who's talking. You can override this by clicking on the window you want to appear on top, but I haven't managed to figure out how to go back just yet.

Huddling is a group chat feature that allows you to send messages to individual people, several people at once, or entire Circles via your smartphone. Again, handy for when you’re looking to talk to several people from the same Circle at once, and it's more convenient than a group text message, which involves scrolling through your entire phonebook.

Of course, there was always going to be comparisons to Facebook and two of the most obvious ones are the +1 button, which is basically just Facebook’s "Like" button, and the fact that there aren’t any ‘walls’ for you to write on. If I wanted to address Kevin directly, the best I can do (as far as I know), is publish a post that only he can see. However, this will appear on my page, not his. I don’t mind, because no one else can see it, but it doesn’t quite feel like I’m communicating with Kevin directly. Here’s an example of me sharing a post with only Kevin. I’ve also tagged him (using the same @ method Facebook and Twitter employ), which means he should receive two notifications instead of one. I'm sure he was really pleased with me for that.

That brings me quite nicely onto the most irritating part of G+: Notifications. Google+ is going to notify you anytime someone touches anything you have touched. For example, if you comment on a photograph posted by Larry Page, you’re going to get a notification every time someone else +1s or comments on that photo. These notifications come in the form of a little red flag in the black toolbar that appears at the top of Google Search, Gmail, Google Reader, etc., and via an email to the address you signed up with. If you’ve got big names in your Circles (remember, just because Larry is in one of my Circles, doesn’t mean I’m in any of his), then it can get very noisy. We can hardly bear to think about what will happen when celebrities get their hands on G+ and fans start +1ing and commenting like crazy. Luckily, you don’t have to put up with this for long, or even at all. You can 'mute' posts, just like you could in Buzz. So, if you really like Larry’s photo but couldn’t care less who else likes it too, you can mute the post after you've interacted with it and hear nothing else about it.

Feed Me

The last thing I want to talk about is feeds, or 'streams'. Your homepage is going to show a 'stream' of updates pulled from people across all of your Circles. However, you can toggle between Circles and choose only to look at updates from friends, family or that imaginary softball team I mentioned earlier. You can also look at 'incoming' posts. These are posts published by people who have added you to their Circles but are not in any of your Circles.

One of the more unfortunate things is that the main 'home' stream showing a mix of all your Circles doesn’t seem to be in any order. This morning I was looking at a post Robert Scoble published at 8 a.m., now I’m looking at a post Google Product Manager Bradley Horowitz published two days ago -- there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. It’s definitely not chronological and it doesn’t seem to go by popularity of post. This might not be an issue with small Circles of five, 10, 15 people, but when it's all your Circles combined, it's impossible to keep up with new posts because old ones keep cropping up and getting in the way.

How Can I Join?

Sadly, though Google opened up invites for a period of time last night, they’ve since been shut down due to high demand. Google did say it was shutting them down "for the night," so it’s possible invites will make a comeback today. Either way, you’ll have to sit tight until they’re switched on again and you can harass a friend for one.

For the record, a loophole that allowed you to give others G+ access by tagging a post with their email address (this would then send them a mail telling them they’ve been mentioned and offering a link to reply and join) appears to have been closed, so you can't get in that way either. If you're really desperate, some people are selling invites on eBay. Yes, really.