Last August, Google’s Amit Singhal was in Delhi, and in a talk largely focused on search (we did an interview afterwards), he spoke about the issues with the construct of social networking at that time, without specifically referencing Facebook or Twitter, or what Google was planning to do. Little did we know then that the issues that he was pointing out, would be core to what is now Google+, Google’s most promising social networking product. I’ve spent two days on Google+ so far, gone from a network of three Googlers (hardly anyone else on board then) on day one, to 112 at the end of day two in 13 different circles. Much has been written about Google+’s features – try this guide at SlashGear, and there’s a MediaNama Spark (topics/interests) for you to add (though I’m not quite sure if one can share sparks).

So, here’s why Google+ Works for me:

– Circles Put Discussions In Context, offer privacy: Some elements of Google+, like the interface of the news feed and perhaps the way photos are shared and tagged (though I can’t understand the 8 photo upload limit), are similar to Facebook. But the way Google+ works makes it significantly distinct: for example, unlike Facebook and Twitter, which in a sense force you to share all the information with everyone, Google Plus allows you to status updates with specific group of people (Circles), offering a little more privacy.

Not all of our circles are equal, and we often hear of people complaining that now that their parents are on Facebook, they’ll have to watch over themselves. The web is full of hilarious Facebook bloopers (try some Facebook Fail memes if you have the rest of the day to waste), where someone has said something embarrassing, only to find a parent or a boss leave a comment. Circles address this exact issue by allowing you to pick which group you want to share what information with.

You can place people in multiple circles. For example, your conversations with your best friend at work will be different in circle of office co-workers, and different in a circle of friends who, say, watch Cricket together. There can be an overlap, but now you have choice, which allows you to view certain updates and conversations in the context of the people within the group, and this is often an underrated social need.

– Managing A Flood Of Updates & Issues of Personalization: The other issue is that, with a site like twitter, conversations are often lost when you follow a lot of people. Every other day a friend tells me about a great conversation a group of my friends had on twitter, which I missed because I wasn’t on twitter at that time. Given that I’m following over a thousand people, these conversations can become hard to track, and not being in the know can be quite frustrating. Facebook’s news stream is, in a sense, auto-personalized: on the basis of your Facebook usage, it personalizes what you read, and often it doesn’t cover every thing that you want to read. While you can view ‘All updates’, you do sometimes miss certain conversations. I view personalization of the web as a negative – it might save time, but it often reduces avenues of discovery, and hence ends up just giving you more and more of what an algorithm believes you want. There is always more to you than just that.  (Update: Eli Pariser speaks about online Filter bubbles here, in a must-watch TED Talk; it probably left an impression on me). Google+ addresses these issues in two ways:

Firstly, it allows you to track separate streams for each circle, so you aren’t limited by an algorithm’s view of a personalized stream, and just as importantly, you don’t miss out on certain conversations because the flood of updates is being organized by creating segments. Twitter tried to do this with lists, but the execution of lists (in my opinion) is quite poor. Facebook hasn’t bothered to address this issue, instead, has tried to figure out what is most relevant to you.

Secondly, Google+ allows a circle to begin a conversation in a ‘huddle’, a separate private conversation track that can make group-email discussions redundant. Unlike chat, it is asynchronous, so even if you aren’t present to participate in that conversation, you can jump in at any time.

– Those Awkward Friend Requests: Google+ is also more open than Facebook, and allows you to just follow people, instread of forcing someone to friend them. This addresses an important social issue – for example, if someone who I know just as an acquaintance wants to become a friend on Facebook, but I don’t want to, I’m left in an awkward social situation: I don’t necessarily want to give him access to my conversations with my family or friends. I want to restrict Facebook usage to close friends, but today Facebook (and LinkedIn) forces me to turn down friend requests (connections) from people, and restricts my choice to a yes or a no. On Twitter and Google+, the follow feature means that someone doesn’t really have to request to include me in a circle, but it does put the onus on me to choose whom I share which information with. Like Twitter, it allows me to block those following me, as well as block updates from those in my circle.

– Updates & Notifications: Google is its toolbar quite well for updates. The Google+ updates are noticeable, but unlike Buzz updates, which appear in your inbox, aren’t in-your-face. Of course, users still need to switch off the email updates to avoid a flood of emails as you get added to circles (my inbox is flooded as we speak). I think the company needs to be careful about integrating Google+ into too many products at this point in time, because updates and integration everywhere can be rather overwhelming.

– Mobile: For me, the most important deployment is on mobile – the Google+ application for Android is intuitive, with a clean, easy to use interface. The strange thing that I found with the mobile deployment is the focus on huddles, when the user intent – at least my intent – when i log in, is to check for status updates. Perhaps later updates to Google+ will address that. Instant upload via mobile works fine, but images are limited just 8 per post. The other problem is that photos on Google+ are integrated with Picasa, which I find a horribly unusable and counter-intuitive photo service that the company needs to rethink, and more importantly, isn’t Flickr.

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So far, it’s much to early to predict how people will use Google+, and for how long. I used Google Buzz for a couple of weeks and Google Wave for a couple of days before not finding any real value in the product, and incase of Wave, the learning curve made it tedious. A lot also depends on sustained momentum: if people don’t sign up and use the service, then it cannot last, and perhaps Google is limiting invites right now, in order to also create interest and scarcity, while feeding the ego of those who already have invites, giving them bragging rights. Gmail did that quite well, as did Facebook’s restricted launch.

I haven’t yet tried Hangout, which allows multiple people to get on video chat. India hardly has the bandwidth (or ‘Fair Usage Capacity’) anyway.

Growth & The Participation for Businesses

The scope for participation of corporates and digital marketing companies is currently limited, and their entry (typically as late adopters) depends on sustained use by people. I think Circles will allow these companies to track influencers better, the way lists on Twitter do. For example, I’ve created a list of people I learn from (Mentors) and “People Doing Interesting Things” to track that they are up to, there’s a circle of friends from the now defunct FreshlimeSoda.com, among others. I can collectively query each circle through a Huddle if I want their opinion on something. It’s currently very difficult – if not impossible – to track influencers on Facebook.

Google does, however, need to create avenues for growth on Google+, in terms of increased participation of brands. Facebook went beyond other social networks by opening up their API, and allowing the creation of applications and pages, and then bringing the rest of the web on board through its Open Graph and the integration of the like buttons. As much as I would hate to see requests for Farmville on Google+, I do see value in brand pages (the MediaNama page).

There is no doubt that Google will have to accept applications into Google+, if it wants to expand.

Does this mean – Goodbye Facebook?

Not for most people, I would assume, but Google+ will put a significant dent into the time people spend on Facebook and Twitter. Yes, there are complaints that now there will be another network for those in the business to track, but with limited time, you’ll have to choose how much time you spend on each. For me, Google+ is a major improvement over Facebook, and while the MediaNama page will remain on Facebook, my personal time will be split between Google+ and Twitter, with only an occasional glance at Facebook. The challenge for Google is in convincing people like my mum to switch, because her circle of friends and family on Facebook is unlikely to jump immediately.

We live in interesting, social, times.

Update: I want a “conversations” page, where I can see the entire stream of interaction between me and another person. Something like the Twitter Direct Message ‘conversations’ format.

Update 2 (via Mahendra Palsule): Engadget reports that the Google+ code reveals plans to launch Games and Q&A services on Google+

Note: essentially an elaboration of responses I sent to BusinessWorld for a story they’re doing. Early days, so even though this is a long post, still “first impressions”