Google Minus

25 million people must be on to something – something either very good (such as J.K. Rowling’s latest fan offering Pottermore), or very bad (Rebecca Black’s Friday is YouTube’s most watched video of all time). These particular 25 million people are the start-up users of Google+, or the Google+ Project, internet behemoth Google’s latest offering to the lucrative social networking sphere. Launched just last month, the site attracted over 20 million users in 24 days, a statistic which has caused internet nerds like myself the world over to sit up straighter in their ergonomic chairs and rub sun cream on their screen-tans. Not even the pompous ‘Project’ in the title could deter me from dipping my toe in the www.ater.

This is not Google’s first foray into social networking. In February 2010, they unveiled Google Buzz, a kid of Facebook/Twitter hybrid to Google account holders, which was a humiliating flop. Its covert opt-in nature angered even faithful Googleheads (a personal term used to describe those who will swear by all things Google – similar to the insufferable Apple Addicts, who will unthinkingly purchase anything Steve Jobs shits out). Buzz also presented a security threat: the ‘auto-follow’ function on email threads left one woman exposed to her ex-husband’s fury when he read that she had been interacting with her new beau. Traces of this annoying intrusiveness remain to this day, when Gmail, which has the aunt-like habit of scanning your inbox, presents you with adverts supposedly pertaining to their content – in my unhappy case, ‘islamiccards4u’ and ‘Serious About Cheese Since 1850!’. As with many of their previous projects, Google+ is in a ‘trial period’, or Beta version, and is currently invitation-only, like Google Mail was in its early days in 2004.

But Google is keen to show that they have learned from their past mistakes, and more importantly, those of its biggest competitor, Facebook. Google+ puts a huge emphasis on its improved privacy settings, centred around the creation of Circles. When you add a friend, they are automatically added to the Circle you designate – ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘people I never talk to but can’t delete’, ‘ex-flings’, ‘people I hated at school and are now on the dole’, etc. You can have as many Circles as you like and select what is visible to each one. However, once you have smugly consigned Hugo van Ashrotherham-Scudberry III to languish in the ‘Douchebags’ circle, and undone everything Disney ever taught you about pigeonholing everybody you know, you realise little has changed. You cannot control who you are added by or see which Circle you are in, luckily in poor Hugo’s case. At the initial registration, Google ominously warns you that they will use your information on “non-Google websites” to help “personalise content”, which would niggle at cautious users. The privacy policy doesn’t clear this up much, stating that it does so “to provide… a better experience on Google services” (which are not defined, so presumably affiliates like Picasa, who will take care of all your uploaded photos and videos, as well as sites belonging to Google like YouTube). They also “collect information about you from other users”, but this again is not defined.

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Other features revolve around the Google+ site in a slightly random but fun way. The excellent site demo gives an enthusiastic and colourful picture of what the developers are hoping to do with the Google+ Project, and the little animations which adorn certain actions, such as deleting a Circle, show up Facebook as the staid older brother. Procrastinators will recognise Sparks as Google’s answer to StumbleUpon – type in your interests, and up pop some sites which you can browse when you are supposed to be applying for any McJob that will take you. Hangouts, on the other hand, are an appalling idea – mass videochats which seem pointless when Google Chat is just on the other side of the stream. Google have kept the basic newsfeed/profile layout of Facebook, even the notifications, though as so few people are using it at the moment the stream is pretty much static. Huddle, a mobile feature, puts all members of a Circle in an instant-messaging-based chat stream, a kind of MSN by text, though so far it only works on Android phones. The much-touted ‘instant upload’ for mobile pictures is not so instant, and uploading a whole album is a lot slower than Facebook.

Being a scientific sort of girl, I decided to do some of my own research into what other people thought of these features. This involved bullying all my friends and some relatives – my real-life Circles, if you like – into signing up to Google+ and then interrogating them about their opinions. The most commonly used adjective was ‘confusing’, but there were mixed reviews. Even with the interactive and engaging online tour (http://www.google.com/+/demo/), the site remains strangely un-intuitive, unlike similar sites Tumblr and Twitter, but some enjoyed the site’s put-together look and feel. There was also an uncertainty that was not solely due to unfamiliarity in the tone of some of the feedback – “I’m not quite sure how it works, but…” was a common response, yet my sample of volunteers seemed happy to give Google+ a chance, if not as an alternative to Facebook. Who would want to upload, tag and caption their holiday snaps twice, and render their computer unusable for three hours? One friend wasn’t even sure whether she already had a Google+ account as her Gmail seemed to have signed her into it. Another friend took massive issue with the fact that you are obliged to use your real name. When quizzed further, he said it discouraged him from using the site because it didn’t allow him to create an alias. Disregarding the fact that Adolf Fritzl is possibly a wanted man, perhaps my paranoid friend had touched upon an interesting side of online networking. Twitter and the like allow us to project an image of ourselves which is carefully garnered, whether through nicknames, retouched photos or groups we have joined, people we follow and pages we have liked. Google+’s insistence on real names could, for some, puncture the bubble of online persona we have nurtured. The couple I babysit for informed me that at the moment they would not be happy with Google+ for their children because anyone can add you to a Circle without your consent, and therefore see your entire profile, and would thus encourage Facebook despite its poor track record regarding privacy. However, they also realised that social networking sites will be an inevitable part of the social interaction of their children’s futures, and therefore welcomed any variation on the monolithic ‘Facey-B’.

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At the moment, the comparisons to Facebook are inevitable; there are too many features which are the same with a new coat of paint on them. Instead of ‘likes’ we have ‘+1s’, and ‘stream’ replaces ‘news feed’. Instead of Facebook’s ‘what’s on your mind?’ we have ‘share what’s new’. But I applaud Google’s effort to think laterally, and to break the Facebook fascination which has over 28 million users in the UK alone, and 1 in every 13 people on earth with a profile page. The English National Opera have just finished showing Two Boys, an opera about the sheer oddness of life lived through Facebook. But Google+ is just not interesting enough. Its 25 million users are not hard-earned the way Facebook’s following was; people have flocked over to try it out but, as it is, the hype will die down. If Google+ is to avoid the fate of Buzz, it needs a new angle or risk forever being like the iPad – cool, but totally pointless. While The Social Network remains literally the most boring film I’ve ever seen, I cannot yet imagine any marketability in The Social Circle (Beta).