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Why I’m Struggling with Google+

So now I’ve been a couple of weeks with Google+ and I’ll be honest, I’m really struggling with the service. I wanted to give it a few weeks before writing anything, which has been helpful in letting my thinking mature.

First, before my Google friends get upset, I want to acknowledge the reason I’m struggling has more to do with me than with Google+. My sense is that Google+ is designed to manage personal networks. In terms of social networking, the priority, like at Facebook, is on a soft version of the word “social” eg. making making the experience friendly and social, not necessarily efficient.

And I’m less interested in the personal experience than in the learning/professional/exchanging experience. Mark Jones, the global communities editor for Reuters, completely nailed what drives my social networking experience in a recent Economist special on the News Industry: “The audience isn’t on Twitter, but the news is on Twitter.” Exactly! That’s why I’m on Twitter. Cause that’s where the news is. It is where the thought leaders are interacting and engaging one another. Which is very different activity than socializing. And I want to be part of all that. Getting intellectually stimulated and engaged – and maybe even, occasionally, shaping ideas.

And that’s what threw me initially about Google+. Because of where I’m coming from, I (like many people) initially focused on sharing updates which begged comparing Google+ to Twitter, not Facebook. That was a mistake.

But if Google+ is about about being social above all else, it is going to be more like Facebook than twitter. And therein lies the problem. As a directory, I love Facebook. It is great for finding people, checking up on their profile and seeing what they are up to. For some people it is good for socializing. But as a medium for sharing information… I hate Facebook. I so rarely use it, it’s hard to remember the last time I checked my stream intentionally.

So I’m willing to accept that part of the problem is me. But I’m sure I’m not along so if you are like me, let me try to further breakdown why I (and maybe you too) are struggling.

Too much of the wrong information, too little of the right information.

The first problem with Google+ and Facebook is that they have both too much of the wrong information, and too little of the right information.

What do I mean by too much of the wrong? What I love about Twitter is its 140 character limit. Indeed, I’m terrified to read over at Mathew Ingram’s blog that some people are questioning this limit. I agree with Mathew: changing Twitter’s 140 character limit is a dumb idea. Back in March 2009, I wrote a post on Twitter – “Poor man’s email or smart man’s timesaver?” – and rereading it today, its central premise still rings true to me:

What I love about Twitter is that it forces writers to be concise. Really concise. This in turn maximizes efficiency for readers. What is it Mark Twain said? “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Rather than having one, or even thousands or readers read something that is excessively long, the lone drafter must take the time and energy to make it short. This saves lots of people time and energy. By saying what you’ve got to say in 140 characters, you may work more, but everybody saves.

On the other hand, while I want a constraint over how much information each person can transmit, I want to be able to view my groups (or circles) of people as I please.

Consider the screen shot of TweetDeck below. Look how much information is being displayed in a coherent manner (of my choosing). It takes me maybe, maybe 30-60 seconds to scan all this. In one swoop I see what friends are up to, some of my favourite thought leaders, some columnists I respect… it is super fast and efficient. Even on my phone, switching between these columns is a breeze.

But now look at Google+. There are comments under each item… comments that frankly, I don’t really care to see. Rather then an efficient stream of content I want, I essentially have a stream of content I don’t really get to shape. Worse, I can see, what, maybe 2-5 items per screen, and of course I can’t just flip between my circles.

Obviously, some of this is because Google+ doesn’t have any applications to display it in alternative forms. I find the Twitter homepage equally hard to use. So some of this could be fixed if (and hopefully when) Google makes public their Google+ API.

But it can’t solve some underlying problems. Because an item can be almost as long as the author wants, and there can be comments, Google+ doesn’t benefit from Twitter’s 140 character limit. As one friend put it, rather than looking at a stream of content, I’m looking at a blog in which everybody I know is a writer submitting content and in which an indefinite number of comments may appear. I’ll be honest: that’s not really a blog I’m interested in reading. Not because I don’t like the individual authors, but because it’s simply too much information, shared inefficiently.

Management Costs are too high
And herein lies the second problem. The management costs of Google+ are too high.
I get why “circles” can help solve some of the problems outlined above. But, as others have written, it creates a set of management costs that I really can’t be bothered with. Indeed this is the same reason Facebook is essentially broken for me.
One of the great things about Twitter is that it’s simple to manage: Follow or don’t follow. I love that I don’t need people’s permission to follow them. At the same time, I understand that this is ideal for managing divergent social groups. A lot of people live lives much more private then mine or want to be able to share just among distinct groups of small friends. When I want to do this, I go to email… that’s because the groups in my life are always shifting and it’s simple to just pick the email addresses. Managing circles and keeping track of them feels challenging for personal use. So Google+ ends up taking too much time to manage, which is, of course, also true of Facebook…
Using circles to manage for professional reasons makes way more sense. That is essentially what I’ve got with Twitter lists. The downside here is that re-creating these lists is a huge pain.

And now one unfair reason with some insight attached

Okay, so going to the Google+ website is a pain, and I’m sure it will be fixed. But presently my main Google account is centered around my eaves.ca address and Google+ won’t work with Google Apps accounts so I have to keep flipping to a gmail account I loathe using. It’s annoying, and basically my social network in Google+ is now attached to an email account I don’t use. Worse, it isn’t clear I’ll ever be able to migrate it over.

This is pain. My Google experience is Balkanizing and it doesn’t feel good.

Indeed, this hits on a larger theme: Early on, I often felt that one of the promises of Google was that it was going to give me more opportunities to tinker (like what Microsoft often offers in its products), but at the same time offer a seamless integrated operating environment (like what Apple, despite or because of their control freak evilness, does so well). But increasingly, I feel the things I use in Google are fractured and disconnected. It’s not the end of the world, but it feels less than what I was hoping for, or what the google brand promise suggested.

And finally a bonus fair reason that’s got me ticked

Now I have a reason for actively disliking Google+. After scanning my address book and social network, it asked me if I wanted to add Tim O’Reilly. I follow Tim as a thought leader in twitter so naturally I thought, let’s get his thoughts via Google+ as well. It turns out however, that Tim does not have a Google+ account. Later when I decided to post something a default settings I failed to notice was set to email people in my circles who don’t belong to Goolge+. So now I’m inadvertently spamming Tim O’Reilly who frankly, doesn’t need to get crap spam emails from me or anyone. My fault? Definitely in part. But I think there’s a chunk of blame that can be heaped on to a crappy UI that wants this outcome.
Very uncool, and not really aligned with the Google brand promise.
In the end…
I remember initially, I didn’t get Twitter; after first trying it briefly I gave up for a few months. It was only after the second round that I really got it. Today I’m struggling with why Google+, but maybe in a few months, it will all crystallize for me.
What I get, is that it is an improvement on Facebook, which I feel like it has become the new AOL – a sort of gardened off internet that is still connected but doesn’t really want you off in the wild having fun. Does Google+ risk doing the same to Google? I don’t know. But at least circles are clearly a much better organizing system than anything Facebook has on offer (which I’ve really failed to get into). It’s far more flexible and easier to set up. But these features, and their benefits, are still not sufficient to overcome the cost setting it up and maintain it…
Ultimately, if everybody moves, I’ll adapt, but I way prefer the simplicity of Twitter; at the moment, if I had my druthers, I’d still just use Twitter and have everything I post there, auto-post over to Google+ and/or Facebook as well.
But I don’t think that will happen. My guess is that the network effects probably mean that many socially driven users will stay with facebook. And does Google+ have enough features to pull the more alpha type user away? I’m not sure.
But I hope they try, as a little more competition in the social networking space might be good for everyone, especially when it comes to privacy and crazy end-user agreements.

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Chris Poirier

Without going into a LOT of depth here, unless you REALLY want me too, it’s rather obvious you haven’t spent more than a few milliseconds using Google+. A LOT of your issues can be resolved by tweaking settings, tweaking you circles, and simply understanding the tool. (I also am fully aware of the irony that social media is supposed to be social..and intuitive, and well…Google+ isn’t that..) However, the main point I’ve been making in a lot of my discussions on the tool is that it’s BETA..changes are coming daily and sometimes hourly depending on how aggressive Google is being at any given moment. So, everything you hate should be submitted as feed back to Google. Scary thought, they are listening to people, and making changes as they get solid feedback. I’ve heard multiple reports of Google’s people reaching out directly to understand feedback and make changes. To that end, this is agile development kicking the snot out of the competition. (you don’t see Zuckerberg really showing much interest in his end users..it’s usually his way or no way.)
All that being said, you’re right about 140 character thing on twitter..leave it alone..to change it would change the point of the tool and the concept entirely. However, that’s why Facebook and Google+ and WordPress and so on exist..for people who need to say a lot more just because they can..I’ve mentioned before that this entire issue of “what tool is better” will ultimately come down to what people’s personal preference is. If you don’t like a tool, don’t use it. I think we’re finally in an position to decide what we like best and use what we like..and don’t use what we don’t..it’s that simple.