Google+ presents an interesting, yet potentially confusing, duality between its roles as a social network and social layer while the public/private divide and mixed following model create a situation that some social network users do not recognise and may be uncomfortable with. This does not, however, infer that the service is either dead or dying.
There has been a recent slew of articles pronouncing Google+ a failure but, while nothing could actually be further from the truth, it is easy to see why some may come to this conclusion based of their experiences.
Paul Tassi has written one such scathing article over at Forbes in "A Eulogy for Google Plus" boldly stating "Google Plus is a failure no matter what the numbers may say".
You're doing it wrong
Paul also writes: "My profile tells me everything I need to know about Google Plus..." "...I have 26 people who have added me into circles, only 8 of them being people I wanted to add back".
It seems that the excuse for various issues or failings with Google+ is that it is still in field-trial and there are bugs that will be worked out before it goes live. I will admit to having used this myself but the rapid growth of Plus, combined with the fact that it feels so solid, causes us to forget that it is still a beta and not open for public consumption.
As it is invitation only and there is currently no interest graph one might be forgiven for thinking that it feels like a party "where simply no one has shown up". Is this a reflection on the user not taking the time to explore the service - Paul admits that not circling or being circled by his "friends" in the recommended list illustrates "just how little we care about this new network" - or is it that the discovery process needs to be improved.
I have mentioned before that discovery will be just as important as normal search for social services so how can this be accomplished? Does Google+ need a public stream like Twitter or, does it need better categorisation and filtering to aid the discovery process?
Whatever method is employed you can't escape that being social requires a significant investment of time and if you aren't prepared to make that investment you can't really criticise the service for failing you.
Moving the mountain
It is, however, understandable that your social circle may not want to migrate from another network if they are already heavily invested leaving you isolated in your new home. This is, no doubt, the main reason Twitter survived during its troubled period.
This, in turn, raises questions about how individuals see the desired use case for Google+. Do they envisage it to be used amongst specific groups meaning we will have to rebuild our connections in the new location or for the discovery of new people and interesting conversations, building a new circle as they go? The perceptions of the service will affect the value received.
There also seems to be a misconception about how circles operate, for example Paul is concerned that he does not know those adding him to circles: "...for all Plus’s claims of privacy and intimacy, I don’t know most of the others".
Plus operates a follower model similar to Twitter - you can follow whomever you wish without the need for reciprocation to form a Facebook style "friendship". Just as with Twitter we are broadcasting to an audience (be it public or determined by specific circles) and we are not restricting those who we may want to hear our public mutterings just as if we were standing on a soapbox in a public space shouting to anyone who walked by.
Google+ Circles are an unusual amalgam of social relationships ranging from the public to the targeted but even when targeting our content there is no obligation for that target to circle us back and create a two-way conversation. While we can approximate the "friending" experience it is not, in fact, actually working like that.
Google+ has an issue with its duality: we hear that it is not a social network but the current level of integration does not yet lend itself to being a "social layer". Yes these are early days and greater integration is no doubt coming down the track but the Plus train is currently stuck at SocNet station. It is easy to see why many are getting the wrong impression. To some if it looks like Facebook, smells like Facebook and acts like Facebook then it must be a Facebook clone.
This causes issues with the public/private divide. When 48% of users have never made a public post Google+ may well appear to look like a ghost town from the outside which is why search and discovery are imperative when approaching Plus as a social network. With a follower model like Twitter the ability to find interesting users is paramount but, for some, this is at odds with the idea that Plus is designed for sharing with select groups based on the content in question.
The reality is that public and private are designed to sit side by side on Plus but the public aspect is not yet as developed as it needs to be.
The disconnect between the two is no more apparent than when being followed by one of the 48%. Within certain circles (pun intended) they may be a hive of activity but from the outside they appear silent and it is, therefore, impossible to decide if you should reciprocate the follow.
Is this a fault with the Plus follower model or with the way people are making use of the service?
It would make sense that if you are going to follow people you don't know in response to items that they have shared publicly then you should have at least a modicum of information visible but then some may only wish to consume content and not necessarily interact with it or its author.
Just as with those who confuse the Plus with Facebook we also have those who confuse the Plus follower model with that of Twitter but just because we follow someone it doesn't mean we will see any of their content unless they post to public or follow us back and explicitly choose to share with us by virtue of their circles. It is an interesting, and at the same time, confusing concept and it is easy to understand why some are so underwhelmed with the service depending on who they follow.
A good start
Those who embrace the platform agree that Google are off to a good start but a lot of work still needs to be done. As with any network, the more you put in to it the more you get back but we must always remember that we are still testers in an exceptionally large field-trial.
Image by Jason Means