Cyberclinic: Let's not focus on the Google+ negatives yet

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The Independent Tech

You can't be good at everything. Noted polymath Stephen Fry has been known to bemoan his inability to sing "Happy Birthday" (or indeed any recognisable tune) despite his prodigious talents in many other areas. My own life has been marked with a persistent failure to develop the knack of breeding stick insects. Google, however, is not a company that's prepared to take "You're rubbish at doing that" for an answer. While blisteringly successful in the fields of search, mobile and browser technology, its strides into the social networking arena have, thus far, faltered: Google Buzz, for example, which suffered from a privacy-related cock-up and a lukewarm reception, and Google Wave, which baffled humans sufficiently to persuade Google to cease developing it last summer. But that was just hasta la vista, baby – and now it's back again with Google+, hoping to pose a direct challenge to Facebook and Twitter. The company is, according to Vic Gundotra – who heads up Google's social department and presumably knows about such things – "transforming into a social destination". And it's unquestionably its best effort yet, although that isn't difficult.

Those of us whom Google has allowed in to use the service (in the manner of an over-zealous nightclub bouncer) are confronted by a familiar interface that's not dissimilar to a Facebook wall, and it's designed to be used for the same kind of stuff: sharing links, videos, photos, location and other information with groups of friends. It's the construction of those groups of friends, however, that seems to provide Google+ with its main USP: you arrange them into "Circles", erecting little e-walls between, say, your work colleagues, your close friends, and those people whom you probably wouldn't want to go on holiday with but wouldn't say so to their faces. Each time you post content, Google+ asks you who's supposed to see it; this way, work colleagues don't get to see videos of your pitiful attempts at karaoke, and your family are kept unaware that your work colleagues give you an unsavoury nickname beginning with the letter B. In theory, this resembles the separation of social circles that happens naturally in life, and should solve the problem that Facebook users complain about constantly, namely the head-on social collisions that unwittingly reveal your online flirtation techniques to your Uncle Geoff.

But Facebook has those tools already. You can sort your friends into groups and post things specifically for them if you want to – but, as Facebook's Yishan Wong revealed in an online post at the weekend, Facebook has conclusive behavioural evidence that we simply can't be bothered. Essentially, we're lazy, vain and selfish; we post things online in order to attract attention, and we filter for specific groups only if we consider that information to be particularly sensitive. But in this social media age, that's hardly ever the case. We just dump stuff online; if people are interested they tell us, and if they don't they move on. By putting Circles front and centre, Google is certainly forcing us to think about who can see what – but most of us will sling everyone in the one Circle, and make everything visible to everyone. It's what I did, anyway.

There are still reasons to see Google+ as an attractive prospect. Relentless accumulation of friends and followers on both Facebook and Twitter occasionally makes you yearn for some peace and quiet, somewhere with a greater signal-to-noise ratio where you can start over, with a smaller, neater, more sympathetic community of people. Google+ is a great opportunity to do just that. (You might get a good year or so out of it before it feels crowded and unwieldy.) Then there's the "hangout" feature, which sets up video chat between groups of friends at the click of a button, allowing us to "have fun", in Google's words, or "initially feel a bit awkward" in my words. But we'll get used to it. And then there's just the question of what to post on there. I found myself staring at an empty box, devoid of inspiration. So I went over to Twitter and posted a tweet bemoaning my lack of inspiration on Google+. There's always something to say, isn't there.

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