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Yesterday Technology Review got a handful of invites to Google’s new social network, Google+, and we set about testing it out in the office.

There’s something inherently strange about a social network that’s so lightly populated. A bit like showing up early to a dance night—there’s an overpowering urge to stand on the sidelines and have a stiff drink until other people show up and the party gets started.

But while the features were hobbled by the service’s emptiness, it was possible to get a sense for how they will work once Google+ is fully up and running. To see a basic description and video of each of the main features, check out Google’s blog, and our earlier take on the ideas behind Google+.

I apportioned some invites to family, friends, and professional contacts—and have been collecting reactions.

General:

Google clearly hopes to play to its strengths, making use of the data it already has from sources such as Gmail contacts. However, the debacle with its launch of Buzz has it using this data much more cautiously than it has in the past. So far, so good—most people felt the integration is a major selling point of Google+. They also made the inevitable comparisons with Facebook and Twitter.

Since I already keep Gmail open for big portion of the time I’m online, I could see Google+ as something that could cut into my Facebook browsing time. I use Facebook mainly to share information with people that I know might care about that information, but I often feel what I share is getting lost in the massive and rapid newsfeed turnover. So, it would stand to reason that if I had more control over the ‘circles’ of people I was sharing with, and I didn’t have to go anywhere besides my already-open Gmail page, a significant portion of my time spent social networking might shift from Facebook to Google—especially if the Google+ reminders were a right balance of noninvasive and obvious (read: unlike Buzz).

—Mike Orcutt, Technology Review

I like that it’s integrated with all of my other Google stuff, because I already use that for a lot. As for whether or not I would actually use Google+, it would probably depend on the proportions of my friends that were already using it. Currently, I use a mixture of e-mail and Facebook for these sorts of interactions, but if lots of people were using this I’d be just as happy to use it, too–probably more happy. Facebook is annoying with all the changes they keep forcing on people.

—Family Member

After getting over the fact that it was not Facebook, which took a few minutes, it seemed pretty easy to navigate. Chatting through it is kind of nice. I don’t really like chatting on Facebook–I haven’t figured out on Facebook how to essentially be “invisible” like you can on Gmail. Also, chat feels faster than Facebook.

—Family Member

I’m impressed by how thoroughly Google has thought about and implemented Google+. It is much better than I was expecting for a v1 product. On the other hand, if you consider Wave and Buzz, then this is more of a v3 product, and so it is perhaps where you would expect it. One of my students asked me if I think Google+ would be better than Facebook and Twitter if we consider only the experience and not the content (i.e., if they all came out today). My answer would be that I definitely would prefer Google+ to Facebook–which I have always found just too complicated to really make sense of. For that reason, I like Twitter. Simple is good. But Google+’s pervasive connection to all things Google gives it that ecosystem advantage. I do like the user interface–powerful, simple and clear. So, it will definitely be an interesting battle!

Ben Bederson, Human-Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland

I read earlier that Google was hoping Plus would fill some middle ground between Facebook (where people “over-share”) and Twitter (where they under-share). I’m not sure such a middle ground exists or is at all necessary. When I get to Google Plus, it feels like a Facebook clone. It’s not exactly, but much of the functionality of Plus exists in more polished form on Facebook.

—Kristina Bjoran, Technology Review

Circles:

Circles seem to be one of Google+’s strengths, but also potentially an Achilles’ heel. Circles provide a more intelligent sharing and better privacy controls—a key distinguishing feature. But the screen inviting you to sort your social contacts into these “circles” is daunting and confusing. It’s not easy to figure out how to add contacts you want to add, and the interface is cluttered up with contacts from e-mail who aren’t on the service. That said, once you get going, the drag-and-drop user interface is pretty fun.

I think I need a clearer explanation of the differences between you adding someone to your circle vs. being added to their circle, and what those things actually mean in terms of using this application.

—Family Member

It has every e-mail address I have ever sent to or received from? This is way too many. Sadly, it does not seem to realize that people with the same name and different @blah.com e-mails might be the same person.

—Friend

I do appreciate that acquaintances is broken out from the friends section.

—Family Member

The drag-and-drop circle management screen is an aesthetically pleasing, intuitive interface, but the fact that it shows multiple e-mail addresses for the same person as separate individual accounts is a pain.

—Kenrick Vezina, Technology Review

Sparks:

Sparks is a way to discover information about particular interests. Most people didn’t gravitate toward this feature right away, but I got a rave review from one friend who did.

OK, the Sparks thing is actually an awesome news aggregator. … Usually, I read queer blogs to keep informed, but the “gay marriage” spark is actually just as good. It rolls in all the stuff I would have read there, and then some. Less awesome for, say, independent film and martial arts, but for Arab Spring? Wow—a bunch of awesome things to read.

—Friend

Hangouts:

This feature excited me as soon as I heard about it. It’s a way to signal to your friends that you’re in the mood for casual conversation online, and creates a sort of chat room on steroids. Within a hangout, you can chat by text, voice, or video. You can also watch videos on YouTube and discuss them with friends. The system is surprisingly smooth, with little to no lag.

“Hangouts” are by far the most interesting feature, and I think they have a ton of potential if Google can integrate even more services—like automatically displaying links, or letting people hang out while streaming Netflix or something.

—Kenrick Vezina, Technology Review

Hangout is where Plus shines. Having the ability to share video watching in a free Web app is fantastic, and with the competing audio input having little technical trouble, I’m impressed. That said, it has a lot of room to grow. Screen sharing seems an obvious step; it would make Google Plus useful as a social business platform, rather than just another social network.

—Kristina Bjoran, Technology Review

Mobile:

It’s a bit too soon to tell for Google+’s mobile features. TR editor Tom Simonite, who was out on assignment, successfully used it to upload geo-tagged photos, and seemed to have no trouble accessing and viewing posts. Other aspects of Google+’s location features, however, were hard for him to test. For example, he used Google+ to look for users who were nearby, but the network was too thin to give him any interesting results.

Hopefully a Google+ app for the iPhone is in the works. Currently, the only way to use the service on a non-Android phone is via a Web-based app. The app is impressive, but it can be slow, and it lacks some important features—like the ability to snap a photo and upload it.

—Will Knight, Technology Review

Questions:

We’ll look at Google+ in more depth over the next few days. In the meantime, readers, feel free to ask questions or add your own impressions in the comments below.

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Tagged: Web, Google, Facebook, social networks, Google+, review

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