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Circles, Streams, Sparks and … Incoming! Some thoughts on Google+

Depending on who’s doing the talking, Google+ is either made of sunshine and awesomesauce or it’s another time-consuming social-network beast to have to feed in order to keep one’s online profile up, grumble grumble grumble. Me, I’m not entirely sure what to think of it yet.

But that, of course, hasn’t stopped me from having a few thoughts about the newest social network on the web. So here.

- It combines the best elements of Facebook and Twitter (and a little bit of Tumblr). While my G+ stream looks and functions like (a better, cleaner) Facebook feed, the social arrangement on G+ is more like Twitter. My circles — those whose streams I follow — can feature G+ members who don’t know me, or those who don’t wish to follow me back. Combining a more familiar Facebook-like interface with the one-to-many format of Twitter creates an interesting environment, one that, admittedly, has me struggling a bit to find a voice. A colleague of mine said you can tell the validity of a social network by how easy it is to be funny on it. I think, so far, G+ is still looking for its sense of humor.

-It’s so hot, you can see Sparks. With Sparks, the built-in recommendation engine, I can create categories that interest me — cycling, comic books, movies, soccer — then G+ will scoop up the web’s best content and tailor-make a feed on that topic for me to dig into and share with others via my stream. It also can help find others with similar interests. To do this on Twitter, you have to guess what hashtags some opinion leaders are using. On G+, the heavy lifting is done for you, and more intelligently, it seems.

-It’s built for convenience. This goes beyond the actual interface being more intuitive than Facebook or Twitter. Consider: the new Google toolbar. This thing was built with one universal truth in mind — that it’s nearly impossible for the average person to make it through the day without using one of Google’s services, whether it’s the search engine, News, Videos, Maps, Gmail,  to see what today’s Doodle is (and let’s face it, that Alexander Calder one was just brilliant), and now, Google+.

The new navigation bar displays all notifications and allows users to share posts and update their status. That’s slick. And for those of us who like to connect with lots of different people around the country, especially those in the news media, it’s good, because …

- It’s intimate, and that’s good — at least for the time being. Google’s rollout of its new social-media platform was invitation-based, meaning you had to know someone to get on. About three weeks in, reports vary as to how many people are using G+; I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 10 million to 50 million. So the bad news is, the network is still fairly exclusive — most people’s parents and grandparents aren’t on it yet. But that’s also the good news. Minus the noise and traffic of more mature social networks, connecting is purer and easier at this point of G+’s existence. A UNL political science professor, for example, recently sat in on a Hangout with GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and had a chance to ask him some questions. On a less exciting scale, I’ve been able to connect with reporters around the country and have them Add me back — several of these reporters haven’t followed me on Twitter, so G+ is already serving as another entry point to getting out the university’s message.

- That said, G+ seems to be built for individuals, not brands. Maybe this is simply because the rest of one’s interaction with Google’s products is as an individual. Or maybe it’s because Google has encouraged organizations to stay off of G+ for the time being. Or, maybe there’s something about how anyone can Add (read: follow) anyone, a la Twitter, which is a social platform well-known to work better as an individual-to-individual platform than Facebook, which is more friendly to faceless brands. So from the outset, I’m finding G+ more valuable as an individual networking tool with journalists and opinion leaders in areas that interest me or intersect with my job promoting the university. Perhaps someday soon G+ will open up the site to those standard, push-content “link farms” that institutions and brands manage on places like Facebook and Twitter. Time will tell how that shakes out, and how those corporate and/or institutional accounts may differ from their presence on other platforms.

- Hangouts have great potential for us to get our experts face time with reporters. This feature is like Super-Skype, and we’d be crazy to not exploit it. I could easily imagine creating media availability sessions hosted by university faculty, administrators, coaches or other officials at a given time each week to discuss the topic du jour with reporters. Or, more powerfully, how about arranging a Hangout on the fly in response to the news of the day — maybe you’ve got a great source on Norway or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Hangouts are one way to get them in front of a good number of reporters quickly and all at once.

But for now, the question is: Do people want or have time for yet another social network? Right now, I’m torn. G+ is very good, and only stands to get better and more robust, and best of all it’s right there in my Google navigation bar all day for me to click on. But, like most people, I’ve already got plenty of social-media upkeep — I guess “curation” is the popular buzzword right now — to do already, and I’m feeling the strain of being stretched a bit too thin. That’s coming from someone who is pretty adept at moving from one social-media channel to the next. As the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jennifer Howard recently remarked after joining G+: “So I’m now supposed to G+, FB, tweet, blog, and Tumblr-ize as well as check three email accounts on a regular basis? Social networking has started to feel like being on some kind of perimeter patrol.” The worst thing that can happen is that people feel like they have to be on G+ instead of wanting to be on G+. That’s a legitimate concern here in the early days.

Part of me thinks that we’re nearing social-media burnout, and that something has to give. Maybe Twitter takes a dive, or G+ figures out a way to catch up, quickly, with Facebook’s 750 million users as it adds games and other functionality. But regardless of what happens — it’ll be fun to look back at this post in a year or two — I think it’s safe to say that Google+ has changed the social-media world in more than a few ways. Its improvements in usability, organization and privacy,in particular, will make other platforms sit up and take notice, and more than likely adopt some of those innovations. So one way or another, G+ will be part of our digital experience whether it supplants other platforms or not.

If you’re not on G+ yet, give it a shot and see what you think. There’s no truth to the rumor that when you join, the theme from The Love Boat plays. And if you need an invite, let me know. I’ve got a few still lying around.

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