First I must say that I am desperate to like Google+.  I really want it to succeed because I like Google. I find many of their products fantastically useful (gmail, maps, Android, calendar, docs.) I also trust Google (within the limits imposed by the fact that it is a listed corporation).  I also believe that the world of the social media citizen is desperate for a breakthrough tool that can start to impose some order on the management of your social media world – and Google seems to be the company best placed to do this.

And – the good news is I do like Google+.  In the same way that Apple have worked out how to do ‘beautiful straight from the box’ for devices, Google have created something which has that same appeal in terms of a platform (something that will probably only get better as they iron out the wrinkles).  Google+ has that sort of playability that makes you want to use it.

But here is where the doubts start to creep in.  You want to use it, but to do what exactly?   Now I know that anything that is new can take time to find its niche – to develop the behaviours that it was designed to encourage.  Often these behaviours are not what the originators really expected – Twitter being a good example.  But while Google+ is new, social networking is not.  I would like to think that we are now at the point of creating clarification technologies – where the new stuff starts to make sense of the old stuff.  For example, the simplicity and clarity that was Facebook suddenly made sense of MySpace and the behaviours of social networking.

The big question therefore is what is it that Google+ makes sense of?  And the only answer I have been able to come up with thus far is that Google+ makes sense of group email.  It is really Gmail+.

From the pitch coming out of Google it seems that the main problem Google+ is designed to solve is the multiple identity /sharing issue – i.e. pictures of your family you don’t necessarily want to share with your work colleagues.  Hence the idea of creating Circles – you can segment your Google+ contacts into distinct groups and decide what you choose to share with each. But here is where the problem starts.  When writing the last sentence I had to work out what ‘my’ people in Google+were called.  I settled on ‘contacts’.  Facebook doesn’t have this problem – it has ‘friends’ but Google is nowhere nearly as explicit about the nature of the relationships you cultivate within it.  To an extent this is a function of the fact that its benefit is to allow you to use one tool to cover a wide group of people. But this means that Circles, which is the idea that lies at the heart of Google+, can easily start to look like (only) a method to organise your Google contacts.  Or else it starts to look like what Google Groups used to be, before its functionality was reduced (we now know the reason for this).

This may not be such a bad thing – after all I firmly believe that the future lies in understanding social media as a series of groups, rather than individuals. But how useful is Circles in this respect?  Certainly, the first thing you need to do when starting with Google+ is to link-up with other people and then decide how to structure your Circles.  Google encourages you to restrict the number of Circles you create in order to stop things from becoming unwieldy.  But the problem is that, in essence, each Circle represents a conversation and the number of conversations you want to have is quite extensive.  One of the first things I did was to create a Business Circle.  But then I realised that I didn’t have anything relevant to say or share with all my business contacts.  Or if I did, I didn’t want to share it in a way that pushes the information to them.  This is why I have a blog – the information is there for those who want to find it, but it doesn’t intrude.  In terms of more specific conversations, I have a huge variety of conversations within my business contacts and if I start to segment these out – I start to end up with something that looks suspiciously like group email lists.

I then created a group called ‘Digerati’ – people with interesting thoughts on social media whom I already follow (on twitter, via blogs, using FriendFeed etc).  I then discovered that Google+ is not a good tool for following people.  My Stream became cluttered with a whole lot of stuff – posts and comments – most of which I wasn’t interested in.  Netvibes is an infinitely better tool for browsing and sifting this.  But this created a further problem.  I monitor/follow Steve Rubel using Netvibes.  I don’t subscribe to his FriendFeed because I don’t want all of his stuff in one stream (even all of Steve Rubel in one stream is too much – let alone all the digerati!), instead I pull out a couple of his feeds.  But now, of course Steve is posting in Google+ but I can’t pull his Google+ feed into Netvibes.  Presumably it is tricky for Steve, because he has yet another feed he has to feed.  I notice that many are solving this issue by simply Google+ing their blog posts and sharing them publicly, in the same way they tweet their posts, although Steve now seems to have segmented his content and is mostly using Google+ to talk about Google+ – clearly not a long-term solution.

This raises another issue – that of the Walled Garden Syndrome.  As everyone struggles to find the business model for social media services / infrastructures, one of the first things that happens is the erection of a wall around that service.  Facebook has always been a walled garden – but even with Facebook I can still push blog posts into it, even if I can’t pull Facebook content out of it.  Twitter has always been more open, you can pull your tweets out of it and also post to it from a variety of platforms – but I have noticed that Twitter is trying to discourage this.  For example, Twitter feeds and searches are no longer available via RSS.

Ultimately social media is all about the breakdown of walls.  It is about the liberation of information, freeing it from being locked-up in specific distribution media or websites.  Yet, everyone is now trying to lock it up again.  And Google+ appears to be the ultimate walled garden.  It is very good and sharing information between different bits of Google – its integration with Picassa being one of its best features.  But you cannot pull content from outside the Google world, not can you push content out through what one might call the Great Firewall of Google.  You even need a Gmail account to subscribe.

This is understandable from a commercial perspective, but I believe that ultimately the tools that will endure are those that support the general flow of social media rather than swim against it. These are the tools which talk to other services (such as Netvibes or Seesmic), rather than act as containment spaces.  This is because these are the tools which will solve the problems that people want solved, rather than the tools which address the providers’ need to make money.  And they will succeed, not because of their ability to make lots of money, but because of their ability to make enough money – enough being not a great deal (as discussed here).

Google+ feels like a solution in search of a problem.  Or rather, it is a tool designed to solve a Google problem, rather than a problem rooted in the behaviours of social media citizens.  It certainly feels more like a direction that a finished product, not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately I think it is headed in the wrong direction.

I still dream of the one tool that is going to make the life of a social media citizen easy and simply.  A tool that can help you manage and integrate a diversity of services, rather than forcing you to live either the world ruled by Google, or the world ruled by Facebook.  I want a tool that has four things.

  • First, the universal inbox – the space where everything that people want to say directly to me arrives (whether they are using email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress comments  – whatever).
  • Second, the following space – the space where I can construct my personalised information sources (essentially a Netvibes dashboard).
  • Third, the universal posting / reply space – i.e. a space where I write stuff or drag content and then select which distribution networks I want to put it in.
  • Fourth, a network coordination space – the space where all the networks or groups I am a member of have their portal which I can go through if I want to operate specifically in that infrastructure rather than push or pull content from it remotely.

Critically, I am not doing anything new using such a tool.  It simply makes what I am already doing much easier.  This is the direction I want to see Google heading in and ultimately I believe this is the direction wherein lies sustainable commercial success.  The irony is that such a tool would actually represent a solution to the problem Google+ was primarily designed to solve i.e. managing multiple identities.  It would allow you to manage a business Circle (called LinkedIn) alongside a friends Circle (called Facebook) alongside a family Circle (powered by SocialGo) and perhaps have a Huddle (powered by Skype).

Obviously it is early days for Google+ and I may not have plugged into the benefits it can bring.  But, if I look at where I have found it most useful to date, it is in sharing some pictures and video with my family – something I was otherwise going to do via Google docs and sending the link via a group email.  This is an improvement, but only a very marginal improvement, on what I was using Google services for anyway.  I guess that is the reason it is called Google+ – it is just that the + isn’t a very big one at the moment.

P.S. I notice that today Google has bought Motorola.  Personally I would have been much happier if it had bought Netvibes or Seesmic.