Technologizer

The Tragic Beauty of Google+

Google's social-network upgrade is gorgeous and imaginative. But when you're competing with Facebook, that might not be enough.

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Google likes to use the word “beautiful” a lot when describing its own products. That would be grating if it weren’t for one fact: more and more, the company is building beautiful stuff. And I’m not sure if it’s ever built anything more beautiful than the new version of its Google+ social network which debuted on Wednesday during the Google I/O keynote.

The service, which was already pretty darn slick, is now among the most attractive and engaging web apps I’ve ever seen. Streams of activity are now laid out as one, two or three columns of tiles, depending on available screen real estate, with some oversized photos spanning the whole width. (Judging from my stream, some Google+ aficionados like the old format better — they can switch back to one column — but I find the new one less claustrophobic.) The left-hand toolbar which used to hog space now disappears until you need it; throughout, the level of visual polish is high, with pixel-perfect design and subtle little animations as you click on different controls.

Google+ can now auto-hashtag your items, a feature which is useful because you can click on any hashtag and then flip through related items shared by other people, without leaving the page you’re on. When it figures out a hashtag based on words in your post, it’s neat. But in some cases, it can also analyze a photo to determine a relevant hashtag, a feat which can be downright dazzling. I uploaded a shot from Disneyland and a drawing of Superman; it correctly identified both and linked appropriately.

The photo features, already practically a service unto themselves, get a thorough makeover. In a feature which reminds me a bit of Everpix, Google+ gives you a page of “highlights” which it chooses algorithmically: shots with family members, shots with smiling people, shots which it just deems to be aesthetically pleasing. There’s an auto-enhancement feature, which would be nice, but no big whoop except that you can tell Google+ to apply it to all your photos without your intervention. And “auto-awesome” features proactively create panoramas, animated-GIF-like loops and other special photos if they notice suitable images in your collection.

Then there’s Hangouts — a new standalone app for Android and iOS that spins off Google+’s Hangouts video-chat feature into its own world, a sort of social-network-within-the-social-network. The Hangouts app does video and text chat and photo sharing, and is designed for both impromptu one-time interactions and ongoing conversations that could go on over a period of days or longer. I can imagine it appealing both to Google+ diehards and people who aren’t otherwise active on the service.

Overall, Google+ doesn’t do anywhere near as many things as Facebook, but the things it does, it does well. Once a me-too service that seemed to exist solely because Facebook posed a potentially existential threat to Google’s dominance of the web, it now has its own style and signature features. Where Facebook is rather stolid — it has its own beautification initiative going on, but feels hamstrung by its need to retain some visual consistency with its past self — Google+ is exuberant. It’s fun to use.

And yet I’m pretty positive I won’t spend remotely as much time in it as I will in Facebook.

You might have already guessed why: My friends, family and acquaintances are all on Facebook, where they add up to a bustling community I enjoy being part of.  More than any particular feature that Mark Zuckerberg and company have cooked up, it’s the people in my life that make Facebook, well, Facebook.

Over on Google+, I find some worthwhile material to peruse, but in far smaller quantities. The smattering of people I encounter hardly replicates my real-world social connections.  The conversations are less warm, personal and interesting. As a social experience, it often feels perfunctory.

I don’t, by the way, claim that any of that is Google+’s fault. In fact, at least some of it is my fault: I’m kind of an absentee landlord of my Google+ page, dropping in only occasionally and sharing items even more sporadically. You can’t complain about the quality of a community unless you try to be part of it. Also, it’s always dangerous to assume that your experience on a social network is representative — I have friends who favor Google+ over Facebook specifically because they find it more lively and personal.

Still, I don’t feel guilty about favoring the social network that feels more like an extension of my world. That’s Facebook. And since Facebook exists, I don’t have much of an incentive to pour more energy into Google+. The two services aren’t identical in particulars and emphasis — today’s Facebook seems to be built on the philosophy that everyone should share everything at all times, sometimes in an automated fashion, and Google+ isn’t like that at all — but ultimately, they scratch the same itch.

Therein lies Google+’s great challenge. Even if it’s good — even if it’s great — it’s not going to displace Facebook as the world’s primary social network. And most people don’t need a second social network. (Or at least a Facebook-like social network: Twitter, Pinterest and others that don’t take Facebook on directly can and do thrive.)

Mind you, there are worse fates than being the world’s second biggest general-purpose social network. After less than two years since Google+’s debut, Google says, 190 million people are active members. A total of 390 million take advantage of its features across Google, such as video calls in Gmail. Google+ isn’t going anywhere. But it has little mindshare among normal everyday folks, and it’s not clear what Google can do to change that. Unless Facebook implodes — hey, it’s not utterly unthinkable — Google’s service might never be more than what it is now: a beautiful disappointment.

MORE: Complete TIME Tech coverage of Google I/O 2013

93 comments
qwfr
qwfr

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Jodib
Jodib

Google plus is a wonderful site. I have met some great people in the communities I have joined, and have learned so much. However, it has a MAJOR SECURITY FLAW. People can add you to their circles and there is not a thing you can do or say about it. I was added by a pervert, who started "sharing with me" (meaning photos) and to this day, I am "in his circle" (I will always show up on his pornography-laced page). Google plus has not only ignored my requests to have them go in a remove me from his circle, they haven't even had the decency to respond to my requests. It makes people feel very vulnerable, and I will always wonder in the back of my mind how much this guy learned about me (even though I know in reality I didn't post much). I really hate to give it up, but may have to close my account, I just don't feel secure anymore.

clownwarz
clownwarz

I don't know what Google Plus is or what it does; all I know is that it keeps trying to force it's way into my YouTube and Gmail accounts, making them unnecessarily complicated while urging me to network with a bunch of people who don't exist.  If Google Plus was a person, I would kick its ass.   I'm seriously thinking of going somewhere else for email and streaming video.

Uzi_Man
Uzi_Man

@clownwarz Well told. I'd rather choose effective simplicity than a complicated mess with nearly-useless options.

Autopten
Autopten

The super hyper mega H.U.G.E. header photo is the only think I don't like about G+.

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petergmcdermott
petergmcdermott

Google+ is a bit more than a social platform. If you are looking at it solely as an alternative to Facebook, I'm afraid you're looking at it all wrong. Think of Google+ as Google 2.0. What is Google? A search engine. So what does the + do? It allows you to share content  and interact with people seamlessly among all of Google's products. Can you simultaneously edit a document in a video teleconference with a friend while watching a video on Facebook? No.

Google is pulling a Wayne Gretzky by getting to the puck before it's there.

CrimsonRiverPro
CrimsonRiverPro

This does seem like a really short sighted article. If you're looking at Google+ as a social media platform only, that's where you're go wrong. Google+ is so much more than that, just in terms of seo, strategy and networking for business it stands alone in it's potential. The fact that it remains an enigma to many is even more reason to get involved in it now.

AndrijHarasewych
AndrijHarasewych

If you have nothing to talk about with G+, and you don't use it, and know little about it - then don't write about it...


"I don’t, by the way, claim that any of that is Google+’s fault. In fact, at least some of it is my fault: I’m kind of an absentee landlord of my Google+ page, dropping in only occasionally and sharing items even more sporadically. You can’t complain about the quality of a community unless you try to be part of it. Also, it’s always dangerous to assume that your experience on a social network is representative — I have friends who favor Google+ over Facebook specifically because they find it more lively and personal"

maarja.theresa
maarja.theresa

What I don't understand is why so many (lazy) "journalists" keep giving us the numbers for g+ and declaring it a wasteland

The numbers are better than twitter which no one would be foolish enough to declare a wasteland

the problem is if you create a Facebook account you pretty quickly find most of your friends and even with just a few friends because of loose security you see whatever they like and comment on so you see the life, twitter is based on public one liners so you create an account and can sit and watch/read so you see the life.. If you "try" g+ the same way you see little of any interest as it isn't built around public/uncontrolled sharing to try g+ you need to engage in the community there is a reason the people who really use g+ really love g+

I am slowly converting my friends and family as they see how much safer and how much more like real community g+ is, circles are they way we are in real life you don't share pictures of a party with your manager nor do you (or more to the point should you) share intimate family moments with the whole wide web you share them with family g+ is the only place you can easily and are encouraged to maintain appropriate sharing.

GuamGuy
GuamGuy

Personally I find Facebook full of garbage. Adios.

merlindorfman
merlindorfman

The real problem with Google+ is that it is another vehicle for Google to collect information about you that they can sell to advertisers so that ads can be more effectively targeted to individuals.


RichardSRussell
RichardSRussell

You want REAL tragedy? Check out a busload of kids surrounded by other kids their own age, each of them ignoring everyone else so they can fiddle with their phones. The ORIGINAL social network — you know, live human beings interacting with other live human beings — seems to be even more doomed than Google+.

singlecanuck
singlecanuck

If you think that is tragic, there is a website that lists PRIVATE Google+ hangout links, and plenty of them. It even updates automatic when new ones are happening. I thought it was a joke at first but when I clicked on the little private hangout buttons for some of them I was connected in people's private hangouts that they never made public and they were asking me how the heck I got there. I think this is some sort of security breach with the new Google videochat/hangouts platform and is a serious cause for concern when it comes to people's privacy. The website url is http://www.hangoutsnitch.com

AndreaC007
AndreaC007

Also the G+ iOS app crushes Facebook's

eBrekh
eBrekh

I wouldn't say it's tragic, or a "beautiful disappointment" considering a disappointment would be if we actually hated how it works. People just need to gradually recognize that it can incorporate your interests, professional life, and social life on one platform, that is customizable  enough for separation at your discretion.

CluedIn
CluedIn

Gosh, does any article in the mainstream media *not* read like a company press release anymore?


eraldo.bernardo
eraldo.bernardo

Facebook has missed the opportunity to develop a full-fledged webmail interface to put their @facebook email addresses to full use. Google has its services completely integrated. Facebook is doomed in the long run.

MahmoudElMagdoub
MahmoudElMagdoub

Google has a lot  of awesome products like Gmail, Search and Docs. Google+ sucks that's a fact not a point of view same as IE sucks, which is a fact and if disagree then you're either stupid or a brainwashed tech-evangelist.

It makes no sense to spend millions on design research when there is no NEED for the product that is already facing an identity crisis. It's like investing in a social network for chickens, it sounds cool but no one wants it.

I once had a phone interview with one of the senior Designers at Google , and I told him that G+ is a failing product that only targets male geeks (which form 70% of the userbase) he said yes, we will work on it. 2 years have passed and they still target the same userbase.

I knew that G+ died when I've first saw one of the stupid Marketing Campaigns which is something like:

"Join the Awesome G+ Hangout next Tuesday with Amr Diab"

*Amr Diab is the top singer in the Middle East.

WTF ?? Here is rule #1: YOU CAN'T FORCE PEOPLE TO LIKE YOUR PRODUCT

I like your products, that's why I'm saying all this.


MattCody
MattCody

I actually like the new look Google+ and think it's definitely a step in the right direction in terms of improving its appeal to more general users. So far, I've been mainly using G+ for professional networking and research, but have been a vocal advocate of the network to friends and family. With the new, dedicated Hangout app I can see this possibly being the tool that coaxes them to at least dabble with the network. Whether it will ever replace Facebook is questionable, but with increasing layman appeal and tempting users in with ever more attractive tools that actually have a practical use, it's worth considering whether that critical mass of friends & family on the network will ever be attained. 

I think yes. I think there's increasing social fatigue from too many networks, too many inane games, comments and adverts - and I know more and more people that are taking 'Facebook holidays'. G+ in my opinion is a different kind of social network that isn't just about being social. It provides an integrated suite of tools that enhance my online experience AND allows me to interact with the people I want to interact with - so I'm all in favour of the changes being made and will continue to promote the network to my friends and family.

ExGothGirl
ExGothGirl

I cancelled G+ yesterday for the second time. I do not know if this new look was up, yet or not.  I just know I couldn't find how to remove my circles so I had to cancel the service.... again.

I was an early adopter, the kind that had "invitations". When G+ first came out, I had a lot of friends on there. Until the economic crash I had worked exclusively in tech or media, my friends are mostly gadget freaks, early adopters and dedicated followers, if not necessarily participants of pop culture. I was on G+ when the big scandal was how few women there were on G+. G+ quickly lost it's lustre when I realized anyone could add me to their circles.  Strange people started to "talk" to me at random.  My real name (aka my gmail email address) was on this thing for any stalker to see.  Picasa which I never really liked because even more public.  I cancelled the G+ account with my main email one and started an account with a gmail account I created  solely for the purpose of maintaining a presence on G+ in case it took off again - I was not the only one who stopped participating around this time.


Fast forward 2 years later and I was randomly called for a job interview at Google.  I quickly recreated the original account to have a presence that matched the email address on my resume.  Alas, I did not get the job and I forgot all about my G+ account, until i decided to finally do something with my extra Facebook account and try to create more of a professional, searchable, brand for myself in Social Media.  I go to Friend Finder and plugged in my gmail credentials, followed the instructions, told it to add ALL my contacts.  I ended up sending FB friend requests to 400 people I do not know and some I wish I didn't know like my ex who of course took it as a sign to try to get back together... again (no, no and for the last time NO).  I was also reported for sending invites to people I don't know.  So I go and look at my Gmail contacts and it has an entire section called "other contacts which is brimming full of people I have never heard of and cannot delete from my contacts."  If I can't delete the contacts then this means I am sitting in some random stranger's contact lists.  I deleted my G+ account... again.  I do not know why G+ feels like the only way we can have friendly intelligent discourse is to force ourselves down each others' throats.  I am 99% sure Time is not going to install all 46 of you into my contacts or vice versa.  Why can't Google honor simple privacy. 

Yes, I can go on about FB's breaches of privacy but as long as I'm "40 year old 1/2 hispanic woman, college educated, living on the west coast, making $X single, no kids, and an overly educated ex-BF living on the East coast, whose closest friend is another 40 year old woman,1/2 British, college educated, living in the upper midwest making $X, married with two kids, one on FB one, too young and hubby too paranoid"  I don't care.  I can be Zuckerberg's stats for this little corner of the world.  What I will not allow is him trying to import and export my contacts.  Sorry G+ but you've let me down twice.


vortexofchaos
vortexofchaos

You clearly have not looked at G+ on my screen on Safari on my MacBook Pro. I have less visible content on my screen than I do on my iPhone. I have put it into one column mode, because two column mode makes it impossible to follow the timely ordering of posts. In either case, the amount of unused space in my window is a usability crime. Furthermore, this interface took away several of the interesting and social bits that used to be in the interface; where are the upcoming birthdays, for example? Instead, some of the things that used to be in the right hand column now float in a seemingly random place in the middle of what little actual content I can see in the screen. 

I've done a lot of user interface usability work. I could easily teach a class using this interface as examples of what NOT to do. Furthermore, it's very, very buggy. I spent a good part of tonight reporting problems in the interface - where it didn't listen to the settings I'd set, or where it jumped random places and lost my context, or where it just dropped what I was doing because I hit some key. What's worse, there's a bug in the bug reporting process that grays out all the information on the screen, so that you can't actually report the actual bug.

As a long-time software developer, this does not look like it was seriously tested. If this is what was intended, it was not usability tested. I personally would not allow software like this to be released into actual use. 

EvoAnubis
EvoAnubis

A large part of the problem is that Google sucks at explaining what make G+ so awesome.  Most of its users could tell you with a single sentence: "Facebook is where you go to keep up with old friends and Google+ is where you go to meet new ones that share your interests."  It's just that simple, but the execs at Google never just say THAT.  They keep leveraging it as a Facebook substitute, but they fail to realize that FB doesn't need a substitute; it's already great at doing what it does precisely because most of the people we all know are already on it.

EvoAnubis
EvoAnubis

I believe you; I'm sure the majority of people on FB have done that. It's however not very good at letting you meet people outside of your own social circles that share interests that you do, and that's what Google Plus excels at.

Makapav
Makapav

@EvoAnubis Exactly. The fact that Google+ doesn't even let you define relationships (brother, sister, cousin, etc.) makes it quite obvious to some of us where it's heading but for other's it's just confusing and sets a different user expectation.

PaulDirks
PaulDirks

When I first set up a Picaasa site so that I could have cloud storage for my (1000's of) photos, the most disconcerting thing was that Google insisted on using face recognition and encouraged me to tag everyone. This had the unfortunate result of filling my contacts list with famous people and dead people. 

Why I would want to give robots even MORE opportunity to guess what I might want to the point of tagging photos is beyond me. Just because it can be done doesn't make it a good idea.


raremetalsguy
raremetalsguy

Google Plus user since the beginning. I love the new changes and must say that the community rocks. Unlike FB where it is all family and people I have known for years, on Gplus I have made business partnerships and awesome friends which are now part of my daily life. FB is now open all day but only because I have pages to manage. Gplus is open and active all day, keep it up Google!!

joeycmiller
joeycmiller

Personally, I would contend that there is no better example of "tragic beauty" than a well-written, well-supported article that is ultimately so powerfully, fatally short-sighted.

SocialMoves
SocialMoves

I'm frankly surprised no one has mentioned that the top header graphic is now totally lost in the redesign when the page first loads. This is a detriment to people and businesses that use the Google+ header image for personal and corporate visual branding. We cannot assume that people will manually scroll up to see the top header. To make matters worse, just click the top navigation links and the graphic header black strip become much narrower. If Google wants to attract more businesses to use the platform, they need to consider the brand implications.

BroVic
BroVic

This about expresses the feelings I was unable to translate into words! Thanks.

EricBenndorf
EricBenndorf

Please people, wake up. The less Google knows about you and your business affairs the better off you will be.

djgeoffe
djgeoffe

I was a big proponent of + when it launched. We used Hangouts on-air feature for many of our clients and I enjoyed connecting with many on the "interest graph" there. But let's face it, it has an identity crisis. These "strategists" saying, "you must be on it, it will help your search ranking," don't get the point. Brands have little time to put emphasis on another platform. Google would have been smart to push more of the enterprise/economic graph (ala LinkedIn) than the social graph. But they missed the boat even there as LinkedIn has a wonderful publishing feature and is slowly owning that graph. Facebook is the social graph where a brand can use Paid/Owned/Earned to run their community and Twitter is the interest graph. Google is forcing brands to make a page by saying it will help their organic search. But if that's all it will do, why else should I maintain a presence there? Plus hangouts, the best feature is being usurped by standalone apps that can be embedded anywhere like Spreecast. There is still no audio thought leadership plug-in like a Soundcloud that integrates. Facebook allows for many apps based on their open API. Until Google becomes more open I don't think + will ever tip mainstream. The second thing is while they push + at the expense of search this is where Bing could push for more integration with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vine, LinkedIn, etc. and basically undercut Google. Remember, people use things for two reasons: 1. Utility 2. Identity. If one system provides a better system than the other, people will switch. The younger demo isn't even on any of the platforms mentioned here. They are spending the majority of their time on Vine, Snapchat, 4Chan, Kik and Wanelo so good luck even getting that demo to adopt +. Like I said, anything can happen but Google needs to rethink their strategy more than simply their design and interface.

lauriemgold
lauriemgold

I joined Google+ when it first went online, and I had great hopes that everyone I knew would join it so I could quit Facebook. I liked Facebook about five years ago, but the only reason I'm still there is that everyone else still uses it and it offers a birthday calendar. Unfortunately, although I sent out as many invites to Google+ as I could at first, only a few went through, and those without a gmail address didn't want to join. So for me, it hasn't really panned out. I'm in an architecture circle that started out great, but it's now so large I don't have time to participate. In the end there's too much social media out there and too little time to take advantage of it. I spend more time on tumblr and goodreads and twitter than I do on FB or Google+, and nothing's perfect. I'm still waiting for the "just right" social media platform, and part of its being just right means that people are ready to jump the FB ship and join. If it's a great platform but people don't use it, it really doesn't matter how great it is.

thomashawk
thomashawk

I think the new Google+ is beautiful.  It is an amazing vibrant social network for me and tons of other photographers who have adopted it as a social home.  The new photo processing tools will make everyone's photos look better on Google+ -- especially photos of people (with things like skin softening) and you can't underestimate vanity.

I suspect there will come a tipping point when Google+ really takes off.  Those who are smart will be there early for that.

As far as getting our friends/family on to Google+, I think that's where we need to take some initiative.  Yes, it's an awesome, superior platform with no ads, but we may need to personally walk our closest contacts through the process and become ambassadors in our communities to reward this sort of interesting new tech and innovation.

hummingbird
hummingbird

For me the only advantage facebook has over google+ is that I know my friends on fb and get more personal with them than I do with the people in my circle on g+. I enjoy all the interesting people I meet on g+ with their varied backgrounds. It's digital penpal for me.

THINK_Lyndon
THINK_Lyndon

Nice review, thank you Harry.  I think the Google+ redesign is fantastic.  I also think that, in combination with some of the other announcements yesterday, it's clear the company has big [and long-term] plans to keep evolving it.  I wonder whether, rather than replacing Facebook or competing with Twitter, if Google is a network for really targeted networking - providing the ability to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time... without the need to broadcast it to the masses.

I was intrigued by the comments around why you can only included 10 named people in G+ posts [you can't have meaningful intimate/personal conversations with more than ten people].  

Best wishes, Lyndon

whatsnext
whatsnext

Google+ is anything but just another social network. It's a network that is integrated into everything Google offers, including search. 

If you don't participate in Google+ in a meaningfui way, you will see your search rankings plummet. 

There is enormous value in Google+ even though they aren't very good at explaining why. Ignore it at your peril.

MarkBytes
MarkBytes

think Google+, being compared to Facebook upon launch was unfair and premature and limited the scope of how people thought of Google+.  It is definitely the Trojan Horse that has won me over not necessarily for the social networking but video, sharing, connectedness, simplicity, integration, etc.

yifatcohen
yifatcohen

Wow Harry, you missed the entire point of the Google I/O keynotes.

Google+ is NOT ANOTHER SOCIAL NETWORK. Comparing it to Facebook and Twitter is a fatal mistake that you (the media) keeps doing and it's hurting businesses and other people out there who look up to YOU to explain it to them.

Google+ is the new Google. It's integrated into EVERYTHING Google - from Search, Gmail, calendar, YouTube (second largest Search engine), Drive, your photos, Android and even Games. 

It allows you to connect with like minded people based on passion, and not physical relationships (you were born to the same family, you went to the same school, you happened to work together). The relationships in Google+ are SO meaningful and deep that a new term has emerged - HIRL: Hanging out In Real Life. 

And just like in real life - you get what you give.

bodangren
bodangren

I tell everyone that Google+ should be used more like Twitter without the silly limits. Find communities and shares circles of people that share your interests. Google+ is my professional development hub.

MarcHandler1
MarcHandler1

As soon as I signed up for Google+ I started getting many posts from people I don't know, and every time a post came in, I was notified by email. DING! I tried every possible way to block these posts and notifications -- I followed all of Google's instructions - could not make them go away. So I deleted the whole thing and quit Google+. Bye-bye Google+

EllieK
EllieK

I don't like the change to Google+ at all. The Google blog said that 41 updates were rolled out all at once today. It isn't helpful to make so many changes to a platform that's been extant for two years already, and that is depended upon for business users, for social media purposes (or so they tell us, over and over).

Prior to now, changes were incremental. I am actually one of the few, frequent users of Google+, well, maybe every day for 15 minutes, sometimes for an hour or two, which is more time than most! These changes make Google+ resemble Tumblr or Newsvine. I'm not thrilled with the auto determined hash tags. We could set hash tags on Google+ before. Or now. Hash tags are useful for searching of course. That's why I don't need any extra nudges from Google, regarding indexing and searching of content...