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Sep. 24, 2012

Google+: Social Networking, Differently

Recently we saw the launch of the “limited field trial” of Google’s latest social venture, Google+ (or G+). There has been a lot of talk about G+, what it can do, who will use it, and whether it is going to compete against Facebook. As with any service, there are good things and bad things which seem similar to other products and things which seem new. G+ is no exception to this.

In this article, we are going to take a quick look around G+, explain what stage it is at right now, have a look at what is already on offer to enhance the experience and of course compare it to its “rivals”.

As with many of the Google services you are likely to use, G+ is built into the whole framework of Google’s sites. Recently, Google revised their sites to include the now “feels like it’s always been there” Google Bar. Once you have a G+ account, the first entry on this becomes “+yourname” - at least, in general. If you go to Picasa using the “Photos” option on the bar, the first entry becomes “+You”. This is a tiny inconsistency which will no doubt be corrected soon enough.

Right now, G+ is integrated into the Picasa service from Google. In fact, Picasa provides the image hosting for your photos on G+. This is quite a powerful facility. If you already use Picasa, you will know that you have a free 1GB storage limit for pictures, as a standard. And that any picture you upload that is shorter than 800 pixels on its longest side, is not counted towards that limit. If you have a G+ account, the 1GiB limit still applies, but now any picture that is shorter than 2048 pixels on its longest side is not counted.

For those of you who are wondering what 1GB is: In the early days of computers, sizes were created related to binary. So a Megabyte (MB) was 1024 Bytes because 1024 could be represented with a single 1 in binary. A Gigabyte (GB) was 1024 Megabytes. Now, this didn’t sit very well with the International Standards Organization because Mega should mean 1 million and Giga should mean 1 billion. Those pesky 24’s were getting in the way of people’s understanding of the terms. To conform, a Gigabyte is now officially classified as 1000 Megabytes. Which left us traditionalists out in the cold. The suggestion was a slight twist on the term, and the KibiByte, MebiByte, GibiByte were born. These now take the place of our beloved KB, MB, and GB terms of old. So 1GiB is “One Gigabyte in old money”.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. This has come about because G+ has followed Facebook’s example of offering you unlimited space for photos on your Facebook account. Any photo you upload using G+ will automatically resize to 2048 pixels on the longest size (and scale accordingly). Of course, because it is using Picasa directly, there are alternatives. For instance, I use the Picasa 3 software on my laptop to organize my photo collection. By default, this is set to scale pictures so that the longest side is 1600 pixels (and thus, with my G+ account, is not included in the storage limit). All I do is what I’ve done for a long time, I create my albums in Picasa 3, sync to the Picasa site, and there they are in G+ as well, ready for me to share to my Circles (we’ll look at those later).

Google have also hinted that they will be offering some form of integration with Gmail and Documents (though they haven’t worked out what that integration will offer just yet). Personally I would like to be able to share documents based on my Circles rather than just by e-mail address. I’d also like to see them do that with Google Calendars.

G+ works around this concept of Circles. When you think about your “real life” friends, we supposedly think in circles. There is the circle of family members, close friends, acquaintances and so on and so forth. Google has taken this and applied it to G+. Also in the same way as real life, a person may consider you in a friendship circle, even if you don’t feel quite the same way. In fact, Google has a pretty good explanation in a video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocPeAdpe_A8

You can make circles, give them names. Put people you know into a circle. Put them in several circles to help you organize. You can put people you don’t know into circles to ‘follow’ them and see their public posts on your “Stream” (we’ll get to the Stream in a bit). For those of you familiar with Twitter, you’ll already understand this concept. Circles allow you a lot of freedom, and as the video above shows, you can also decide to see posts in your Stream that are only from people in a chosen circle. This means that you don’t have to spend ages scrolling down the screen, clicking “More” because there have been 589 new posts since you logged in last night, all on the same Feed. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder why this isn’t the norm everywhere.

Here’s the other great thing with Circles. Not only can you use them to determine which people’s posts you view on your Stream, but you can post your own message specifically to the people of one, or more circles. This gives us a whole new level of control over how we share information with one another. For instance, I follow a person who has a circle that contains people who are crazy about cats. That way, she can share her love of cats with people that are interested in cats, without overwhelming all of her contacts with cat posts that they don’t want to see.

When you start a G+ account, there are a few default circles created; Friends, Family, Following and Acquaintances. There is nothing special about these circles, you can delete them or rename them. However, the names of these circles are special. The four circles with these names are grouped above the rest of the circles you have. So whilst all of your other circles are in alphabetical order, these four will always be at the top. This may be convenient for some - personally, I got rid so that all my circles were in alphabetical order.

Now then, this Stream that we mentioned above is what you will spend most of your time on G+ with. Streams look much like the Newsfeed on Facebook - at first glance. However, they offer so much more flexibility over Facebook's newsfeed.

When logging into G+, by default you are presented with the Stream. This shows you all of the posts made by you and the people you follow (who shared their post as public), or the people who have sent an update to one of their circles of which you were a member. They are all in chronological order, much like the "Most Recent" option on Facebook's news feed, and like Twitter's feed in general.

Now, this can get a little noisy, especially if you follow some of the regular public posters that are so popularly followed. So, with the Stream, you have the option to view the stream from people within each of your circles. So, if you only want to see what your family members have said and you have a Family circle, you click on that circle and the stream only displays posts by the people in your family circle.

This takes the idea of looking at a Facebook friend's wall posts, and expands it to allow you to look at the wall posts of a collection of friends. A great bonus is that you can group people together in more than one circle. This can help if you have people that post similar things that are related. For instance, I have a Google group for members of Google staff that I like to read posts from.

Google does not allow you to filter what you see in the default stream (aside from allowing you to mute posts so you don't see them again). This has been mentioned by many users who would like to be able to select which circles are shown. This may be something they introduce, however, in the meantime; I have created a circle entitled _My Stream (the _ puts it at the top of the alphabetically organized circles). By simply adding a bookmark for the _My Stream circle to my bookmark bar, I can open up the Google+ website and go straight to the circle I want to see. In fact, you can create these ‘permalinks’ for several circles to save yourself a little time.

The ability to post to users within a specific circle comes in really handy when I want to send out a post to family members with greetings and information on what we have been doing. Indeed, this carries over very nicely to the photos side of things...

It has to be said that in its vanilla state, the Stream can get a little bit unwieldy, but with the help of some cleaver extensions in the Chrome browser (and other browsers if you use them are bound to have G+ extensions by now) you can really start to take control. Extensions will be covered later on.

So you have your friends in the appropriate circles, you’ve found the people that you are interested in hearing views and reports from (for instance Robert Scoble has a pretty big following of 54,937 at the time of writing) and added them to your circles. Some people have added you to their circle and you’re starting to think about what else you can do with G+.

Well, obviously as well as photos, G+ provides the facility to upload and share your videos. The underlying video hosting is taken care of by another Google service (YouTube) and is pretty well integrated into G+. To be fair, it’s not like Picasa where your videos are available to you in either service, but that may well be on the way. What you can do is search YouTube directly from the status box, preview any of the videos shown by the search before inserting them. Also, if you have got videos uploaded to YouTube on your Google account, you can see a list of those in G+ from the status box. You can also upload a video from your computer, or link to a video by a URL.

So far, G+ has pretty much taken all the best bits of Facebook and Twitter, put them together and thrown out the rubbish. But there are always two sides to this story. I like the G+ UI - I can find things where I would expect them to be. My wife on the other hand, finds it confusing because things aren’t where they would be in Facebook. G+ has an interface that may take a bit of getting used to. But it is definitely worth the effort. That said, of course, there’s always help from some aftermarket solutions.

That’s right; we’re going to have a look at a few ‘extensions’ for Google’s Chrome browser specifically for G+.

Currently I am experimenting here and there with a range of extension. A little tweaking of options to make sure they all play together nicely, and a little patience as some are in early development and are prone to the odd little glitch here and there. To start with though, I’m going to list the extensions I am using.

+1 Button - Plus One Button: https://chrome.Google.com/webstore/detail/kmonhedbcpagbphilnoajiencllnpoii This handy little extension places a “+1” box in your address bar. This means that you are still able to +1 a site that has not yet incorporated the Google +1 button.

+Photo Zoom: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/njoglkofocgopmdfjnbifnicbickbola This automatically zooms into a photo on G+ for you, without needing you to click on (and load the image viewer) that picture. There is an option to only do this when you are also holding a key on the keyboard to stop it from zooming on every image you roll over. Nice little time saver.

+Beautify G+: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/kbkpajolelcpmhkbcnmoaafpmfkepohl Has a range of options for subtle changes to the appearance of G+, including the ability to make the top, left and right of the screen static (so it does scroll with the Stream). I tend to leave the left and right as normal and just keep the top static.

G+me for Google Plus: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/oacdcllhgpddmlnhajiacfakhlilbicp This does for Stream posts what +Comment Toggle does for comments. With this extension, rather than all of the posts being visible, you can collapse them to a single line showing the name of the poster, time and the beginning of the message. Much like your e-mail inbox may look. Hover over a post, and a preview appears to the right. It keeps that Stream really neat and tidy.

Surplus: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/pfphgaimeghgekhncbkfblhdhfaiaipf The notifications in G+ are great, but this extension pops a notification icon just next to your address bar. You don’t have to have the G+ site open in your browser to see notifications, see what has been posted or even respond!

Usability Boost for Google Plus:https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/dkcppcocablbakkaboahjmljpodddkcp This nice little extension boxes the posts in your Stream in a way which makes them easier to distinguish from each other. It also slightly changes the style of the comments area for each post to make them stand out from the post a little more.

Of course this is only a small selection of the extensions that are out there for G+ already. With a little looking, and some experimentation you can put together a group of extensions which change the way G+ looks and works to make it much friendlier for you.

G+ has also created a real stir when it comes to articles, tips and tutorials. These are popping up left, right and centre. So if you’re concerned you may not be able to use G+ there is bound to be a guide that will help you.

So, what should we be looking at next? Well, here are a few interesting resources:

There are plenty of people to follow on G+ as well. Craig Kanalley of the Huffington Post put together a list of “Googlers”: https://plus.google.com/103399926392582289066/posts

There is also a list of the 100 most followed G+ accounts which once again finds Mark Zuckerberg at the top (he disabled viewing of his followers numbers which dropped him of the list for a day). This led on reports that he had closed his account, and then the “quotes” that it was because of privacy concerns. Anyhow, he and the Google Execs that had done the same, are now back on the list: http://socialstatistics.com/

Over the past few days, people have been writing hints and tips like it’s going out of fashion. So there are masses of pages that are worth a look at for anyone looking to get to grips with G+:

20 Google Tips - http://www.techradar.com/news/web/internet/20-google-tips-tricks-and-hints-978108

Using G+ as a Photography Portfolio - http://thenextweb.com/google/2011/07/03/how-to-turn-google-into-an-online-photography-portfolio/

A collection of various tips and tutorials on G+ - http://storify.com/ducttape/google-plus-tutorials

Recommended by one of my circle members for tips, but I've not read it yet -http://www.geek.com/articles/geek-pick/the-best-tips-tricks-add-ons-for-google-2011078/

As a social tool, G+ has the benefits of both Facebook and Twitter. Whilst there is no external software directly on the system yet, it is known that the API that Google is putting in place has flags that would allow other publishers to run software through the site. Google has mentioned that they are planning on offering this as a platform - in the same way that Facebook's apps and games do.

G+ has become the base of my web browsing now. Because I had been using Google Docs over Office for the past couple of years, and Gmail over any other e-mail, this all ties in nicely for me. The people I am currently working with to form a software publishing company are in the process of signing up, and whilst we were using e-mail, Facebook and Skype to communicate, we are now planning to use G+, email and G+'s Hangout feature to communicate from here on.

The ‘Hangouts’ are another interesting feature. The hangout is essentially a web based video conferencing facility inside G+. You can have a video chat with several people involved, all through G+. One of my circle members also highlighted that if you use a Mac and an iPad, you can use the Air Display software to drop your Hangout window onto your iPad. That way, the hangout video window doesn't get in the way of you using your computer.

I've tried twitter a couple of times, but never got to liking it. Facebook I used out of necessity to primarily keep in contact with colleagues, but of my contacts are now migrating to G+, so the only thing Facebook has left for me are the actual friends I am connected to on there that are not making the jump to G+. With some 750 million accounts, I don't think Facebook has to be worrying too much right now. However, I am ceasing the use of their website, by using Live Messenger to interact with my friends on Facebook. Time will tell what will happen, but G+ is about far more than just social networking, so there is a huge amount of scope and I expect it to become a significant force on the Net.

There is a great slide presentation that gives some insight into the G+ possibilities by a chap called Vincent Wong (highlighted by Tom Anderson who had earlier posted this:https://plus.google.com/112063946124358686266/posts/SrQrSSXeViq)

https://plus.google.com/photos/100238778462210489846/albums/5629087019815403777

There ends this article on G+, now you just need to get yourself an invite from a friend with a G+ account and sign yourself up.

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