Was it just two years ago that we were selling our firstborn for invitations to the GoogleWave ‘limited public beta’? That one fizzed like a post-OSH firework, so you’d have thought the announcement of Google+ recently would have been greeted with a fair amount of eyerolling (not to be confused with iRolling – using an iPhone to send a link to a Rick Astley video) if not outright fuckoffness.
But here we are again. The registered few, smugly dolling out invitations, the uninvited standing at stoplights with crudely lettered pleas on scraps of cardboard, and those who can actually be bothered using it, using it mostly to talk about the fact that they’re using it, who else is using it, and whether or not they think they’ll keep using it.
Like Wave, Google+ has more than a whiff of the Star Bellied Sneetches about it, with its main appeal so far seeming to be the way it gives the digital in-crowd another reason to declare their superiority. Which is a shame, because it’s not a bad platform.
If LinkedIn is Facebook if Amway had invented it, then Google+ is Facebook if, well, Google had. Readers with long memories will remember that the initial successes of the Japanese electronics industry were (inaccurately and more than a little xenophobically) attributed to Mr Sony and his mates watching the Brits and Americans, learning from their mistakes, then building on them rather than starting from scratch.
Google+ has had a similar advantage, bursting into the world fully formed and rather beautifully formed at that. For most users, its best feature is the way it solves a problem faced by anyone on Facebook who’s ever woken up the morning after the work party face-down on a stripper called Nigel wondering if those flashes last night were lightning or cameras.
Circles, as it’s called, lets you decide which group of people gets to see what. Mum gets the birthday party shots, your mates get the ones with you and Nigel. Nice.
Yes, Facebook lets you do the same sort of thing, but it’s in a roundabout way and involves more menu choices than lunch at the Canton Cafe. (That's about to change, though, as Facebook announced last week.)
Circles makes it easy, and the Lazy-Susan- style drag and drop interface (to extend the Canton Café metaphor just a little) is cute and fun to use. There’s no limit to the number of Circles you can have, and each of your friends can be in more than one circle.
Luckily, they don’t get to see which circle you decide to put them in – discovering you’re on the ‘suspicious sounding dishes made with pig innards’ Lazy Susan rather than the ‘tasty fried squid and roast duck’ one you thought you were on might not be pretty.
Video conferencing feature Hangouts is cool too. Squeaking in ahead of Facebook’s Skype offering by a couple of days, it’s a smart feature that lets you yack with up to nine other people without paying the premium fee you’d need to on Skype. Cleverly, it automatically puts the image of the person talking up large. Look at me, as Kath and Kim fans might say.
The photo feature is a nice place to browse, for the visually inclined. It aggregates all the photos posted by people in your circles. Right now, half of them are your friends’ profile pics, but this will only get better.
Not everything that comes in the box is a rainbow-flavoured gummy bear of joy though. The ‘Spark’ feature supposedly connects you to people and conversations that relate to stuff you’re interested in. Given that Google is the king of context this should rock like the Grand Chancellor in a 6.0. It doesn’t. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough but it just seems like plain old Google search with the results prettied up a bit.
Google+ isn’t exactly brand-friendly just yet either. While some matey mateys like Ford have been allowed to splash themselves all over the plus-paddock, other brands gets a swift smackdown if they try to hang with the cool kids. As someone who doesn’t know if he’s a brand or a human (or, indeed, a goat) half the time, I’m not sure if keeping Google+ free of commercial wickedness is a good thing or not. We’ll see.
We’ll also see if anyone can actually be arsed keeping up the Google+ momentum six months down the track. If there’s one thing Google won’t flog, it’s a dead horse (Wave got sent to the petfood factory/private ownership mere months after it failed to take off ). Yes, Google+ is undeniably better than Facebook in some ways, but not in ways that Facebook couldn’t match or better.
If the Zuck gets a minion to tidy up the way Facebook lets you control who sees your updates, it will have negated Circles – Google+’s one big advantage (Star Bellied Sneetches aside) – and that might be enough to stop people switching.
There are only so many hours in the day, and between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and God knows what else, even the most committed SMD* is already struggling to find time to eat and poop without another network thrown in.
As I write this, a month after the launch, an Experian Hitwise survey already has weekly Google+ visits down 3 percent on the week before. Yep, that’s a small shift and yep, a week isn’t long but it does feel a bit like the cool crowd might have turned up to the opening, checked out who else was there, had their photo taken by Norrie Montgomery then pissed off back to Facebook with a handbag full of free canapes for later.
And if the Facebook they piss off back to tidies up its act just a little bit – especially around Nigel-the-stripper related issues – that might be exactly where they stay.
* Social Media Douchebag: see columnist photo and profile. [Ed: Now come on...]
Vaughn Davis (@vaughndavis) is creative director and owner of advertising and social media agency business thingy the Goat Farm (tgf.co.nz), and the author of new Zealand’s first and only book on social media, Tweet this Book.