Is Google Plus just a modern ghost town?
Google Plus (or Google+) began life as an exclusive 'invite only' social network just twelve months ago. At the time of its launch it was viewed by many as the biggest, exclusive and most fun geek party you were not invited to.
And with news that over 400 million people have signed up to the search giant's latest innovation we wonder just what these numbers really tell us; are they actually as impressive as they first seem?
AP Photo, Paul Sakuma
A modern ghost town
Aside from the headline-grabbing statistics, dig a little deeper and you soon learn that of these members only one in four are actually active in the Google+ community all of the time. So that's 100 million active users each month... whilst this is still impressive, it's a far cry from the success story that Google had us believe. Also bear in mind that in comparison Facebook has over 500 million daily users - when put like that, this is some difference.
Despite being a frequent Gmail user I'd yet to complete my Google+ profile - in the name of journalism I have since taken the plunge and pushed the button. My findings? Of my 500+ Google contacts, only 7 appear to have embraced the lure of the Google+ ecosystem. But is my experience typical of other internet users?
Our social media columnist Adam Hartley wrote of his early Google+ experience shortly after its launch last year. Adam noted that "a cursory glance of the acquaintances and friends I have already assimilated into my Google+ network confirms that most of them are city-dwellers. Country folk, I can only assume, have better things to do." Hmm.
Smoke and mirrors
Have Google been forcing Google+ down our throats? According to a number of technology commentators - yes they have. Earlier this year internet celebrity Wil Wheaton voiced his displeasure of Google replacing the thumbs up/thumbs down button on YouTube with a 'G+ Like' icon. Granted, this change was only temporary (like any tech company Google likes to experiment with their functionality every now and again), yet it did nothing to fan the flames of Google's toughest critics.
Google+ has also been integrated into search results, and some commentators say that engagement of the social network can also be measured through other activities in the Google realm (like checking Gmail, using Google Docs etc.) Whatever the real numbers of actual people using Google+ on a daily basis, the service does offer a number of features - Circles, Sparks, Hangouts, Huddles, and so on - that currently give it an edge over Facebook and have got a number of early users excited about the potential for social networking.
Anybody signing up to Google can have a Google+ account.
Privacy is also another concern when it comes to social networks - we asked social gaming analyst Adam Taylor for his thoughts on this thorny subject, he said "Google is aware of the issues surrounding privacy, from its experience with Buzz, and seems to be working hard to give the user as much control as possible over their private information."
Obviously every social network under the sun handles privacy differently - you'll remember the furore Facebook causes every time it makes an update [Facebook Timeline - how to protect your privacy]
It would appear by setting yourself up with a Google+ account today, people you've shared your Picasa albums with will see those pictures on your profile and in their Google Search results. Plus, anyone you share an album with can see who else it's shared with and reshare it, unless you lock the album.
Everything but the kitchen sink
For many social media experts, such as internet psychologist Graham Jones, the apparent smorgasbord of social media features on Google+ means that the service suffers from a lack of clear focus.
"It is neither one thing nor another," argues the web psychologist. "It includes Twitter-like following capabilities
where you can connect with anyone, as well as the ability to group people into circles, where you can have conversations and share information, similar to Facebook.
"The advantage of both Twitter and Facebook is that they represent different kinds of communication, meaning that people understand which one to use for which kind of material they want to convey. Because Google+ allows you to perform a couple of different kinds of communication in the same place, it has the potential for confusion. It is rather like giving people a pen, some paper and a typewriter - what are they supposed to use each one for?"
Fans can follow 'Circles' of their favourite celebrities like Lady Gaga.
Because we need ANOTHER social network
If you try and create a new Google account today you are also signing yourself up to Google+ as well. In-fact there is only one check-box between your freedom and inadvertently signing yourself up to an extra social network you may or may not want.
But is this sentiment shared by other internet users? Apparently so judging by some of the comments we're seeing on Twitter - in just a short period we noted the following:
Christine Gilbert (@almostfearless) says: "ONLY 1/4 are active each month and those ppl are just checking to see if anyone is using it yet."
Diablo Alejandro (@FanBoiMinaj): "Google+ has 400 million members and I'm gladly not one of them."
OK one of the areas where Google+ appears to have taken off is the widening realm of celebrity and the social connection they have with their fans. Just like Facebook and Twitter before it, Google+ is another social network that somewhat blurs the lines between celebrities and their fanbase. Google+ has circles that allow you to catch updates from your favourite stars - but surely this information is already widely available on the aforementioned networks. Such duplication is just clogging up the online space...
The bottom-line is this. If Google can create a product that appeals to our basic human instinct to socialise and
interact with our friends and family in a more appealing and intuitive way than Facebook, it will succeed. An obvious point to make, perhaps.
But if Google continues to prioritise technology and engineering over and above truly learning to understand and respond to the millions of complex human emotions that drive our desires to connect and to be social, then, no matter how technically clever the features on Google+ may be, we will all be pointing our eyeballs back towards Facebook's comfy blue homepage quicker than you can say Google Buzz.
[Additional words by MSN UK's social media expert Adam Hartley]
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