Google the spark in the jungle of social networks


Thanks to one of my friends, I got my Google+ invite on June 30th. I woke up and found an invite in my inbox and immediately, I signed up. Having seen the screenshots and videos of it, I assumed it to be better than facebook and the rest.

My social networking stint actually started with orkut, like many other Indians and I was perfectly happy using it occasionally during my college days till a bloke called Zuckerberg came along and started facebook. I didn’t move out of orkut immediately, while I also had created a linkedin account too. Apparently, I was coaxed into believing that linkedin helps you in your professional life, but I now know that it’s just a fairytale. So, I signed up for facebook and started using it slowly. My weekly activity was to take a couple of quizzes, check out some videos, read some posts and then logout. The real ‘social networking’ hadn’t begun! As I entered the second year of my job, I began to use facebook increasingly, thanks to a special someone. Weekly activities became daily and I almost got addicted to it. Every hour or so, I used to click that facebook logo to see whether any messages had come! 😉 And I used to post a lot too. Mostly geek stuff or music related which I wonder whether anyone ever read; but I wanted to share something or the other with people. In the meantime, there was one more form of social networking that was slowly making its presence – microblogging. I started with twitter and also was following a lot of opensource gurus on identi.ca and it was fun. You actually get to know something by following a lot of people and as the posts are generally terse (140 characters), you can gain a lot pretty quickly. And thanks to URL shorteners, you can embed a lot of useful information in just a mere 140 characters. But it was becoming increasingly tough living across facebook, twitter and identi.ca. And then came along Buzz. Buzz’s the tool which actually taught me how a social networking tool should be. More than helping me keep in touch with friends, it helped me learn a lot, particularly from the posts that people had shared from tools like Reader. Though I use Reader actively, there are certain posts that might miss your eye and when a friend shares it, you know about it. Perhaps, I found Buzz useful because of my brilliant friends who used it. Maybe others didn’t have such friends and Buzz was termed a failure! In the midst of all these, there also came Google Wave, which I perhaps used it for a week or two after which I felt like a loner. I really liked it, but it was like staying in a deserted island with no one to give company!

So, after several days of wonderful Buzz usage, I started using Google+ in Field Beta on June 30. My first reaction to it was it was neat, slick and clean! Trademark of a Google product. I’ve never been a huge fan of Google, primarily because of jealousy! 🙂 Like Bill Gates jealous of Steve Jobs in Pirates of the Silicon Valley. But, at times I wondered how a company that huge can pull off smart things, almost periodically. I always liked Gmail, Reader and more recently Buzz, but I never was a huge fan of other services. But, just as one of my friends put, I could always trust Google with my private data instead of a company like facebook. I initially felt Google+ was different and great. But, as I kept using the service, I felt it looked more like facebook and I experienced my first mood swing! Google+ didn’t look right! It didn’t make me feel at home because resembled awfully like facebook. Nevertheless, I persisted and started exploring slowly and came across Sparks which actually resulted in the second mood swing! Here was a social network which could actually help you learn something. Social networks are not very different from other media – TV, Print etc. There should be a healthy dose of fun (read knowledge) and entertainment (read time-wasters), and social networks, especially facebook happened to have a lot of entertainment and distractions which I realised pretty late (sometime in April 2011) and started to limit my footprint. I was lucky enough to escape from the clutches of facebook addiction. And in case you are wondering, the very reason I started using facebook so enthusiastically is yet to be fulfilled! But, after my second mood swing, I certainly have begun to see the pros of Google+. In this regard, it is very similar to TV. It’s not bad just because there are a couple of crap channels. There are brilliant channels which we should unearth and watch. Anyway, the main purpose of this post, a very lengthy one at that, is to say what I really like in Google+ and more importantly, what I need Google to do to make it better (at least for me). I know it’s still in beta and will take sometime to be officially launched; nevertheless, here it goes! 🙂

  1. On the UX front, I believe Google can make the interface theme-able, or at least introduce more contrast. Though the different divs look seamless, it would be great if there was more delineation.
  2. The Circles are an excellent concept – one that is unique to Google+. I want to have a lot of people in my social realm but predominantly, I’m interested in only a few people’s life. I can look at the others’ posts and lives when I’m really bored. But, currently all circles are equal. It could be better if Google+ can sport some way to make certain circles more important than the others, so that we can concentrate on the people who actually matter the most to us.
  3. The Stream currently shows the posts from all Circles. This could be made configurable so that posts from only certain Circles actually make it to the stream. Just an extension of the previous concept.
  4. Currently, only 5 Circles are shown under the Stream. The Circles that should be visible or not can be made configurable. Also, a small notification tip can be added to the Circle name to show how many updates are currently available from that particular Circle. To be honest, this looks very similar to the display and notification of Groups in facebook, but hey, Circles are better!
  5. One shortcoming I noticed in the early days of Wave was the absence of a means to actually post something with only the keyboard. After you had keyed in your post, you’ll have to click that ‘Post’ button to send that wave out. The same problem exists with Google+. Google should support Shift+Enter or something else to post.
  6. And, it’s now weird to show Buzz as a separate tab under the profile. There should be some kind of a back-porting mechanism that converts all the buzzes (including reshares, Like (+1s, that is) and comments) into Google+ posts. Maybe this has been scheduled by Google and should be available as more people start using Google+.
  7. A way to find all posts that we have commented in. This is available in Buzz. But, this needs to make its way into Google+ too. I would want to revisit my comments sometime in the future.
  8. The chat widget addition is good too. I have never really liked the chat being integrated as part of my email, but now, I can use Google+ for chatting while Gmail stays separate. Also, the chat widget was populated with a few contacts – many with whom I’ve never chatted in my life! 🙂 They’re in my Contacts and chat list because of Orkut! But, then it correctly added the person whom I wanted! 🙂 And, it’s great that the chats are stored in your Gmail Chats folder. And, shifting from one Chat tab to the other using Tab and Shift+Tab is missing! A minor glitch, I must add.
  9. Hangout is the feature that initially attracted me to Google+. Me and my friends have been trying to find a video conferencing solution. We stumbled upon oovoo, tokbox, Skype beta and finally, we have arrived at the solution! 🙂 It worked brilliantly and I tried everything on it. It was beautiful too. One shortcoming is the chats aren’t stored! 🙂 And also the ‘Push to talk’ when watching a video could be a ‘Toggle to talk’, but then people are supposed to view the video and not talk! 🙂
  10. Sparks is the feature that brought me back to Google+. It has the potential to satiate what I need of Google+. Maybe, Reader could be integrated with Sparks and thus help in sharing knowledge and learning new stuff, which is the real fun!
  11. I guess the Mobile App is equally good. Especially, Huddle. I hope to use it in the near future.

It’s heartening to see that Google has put a lot of effort into developing Google+. It has certainly learned from its mistakes in Wave and has equally adopted the positives of Orkut and Buzz, and thus has rolled out a beautiful product. It’s hard to believe that it is still in Field Beta and I’m eager to see how the finished version would be.

To be honest, I wanted to try more of Google+ after reading this. When I first used it, I was increasingly looking at the similarities between facebook and was afraid that Google+ could turn into a gutter that facebook is. I mean it; who’s not on facebook! What identity do you have? You just are another speck in that garbage! Google+ is something similar too, but then you maintain your friend’s circles more effectively. Hopefully, common users who want to do social networking for entertainment and not for fun (read learn) will stay with facebook and won’t tread the path of Google+. Even if they do, I’d have a way to limit my “Circles”! 🙂 And, I’ll remain a critic of Google too! 🙂 Let’s wait and see whether the faint spark will live to reach the intensity of a forest fire! I hope it does! 🙂