What is the point of Google+?

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About a month ago on this blog, I tried to explain the point of twitter. This week I turn to Google+ a relatively new social network which hasn’t yet quite taken off in the way facebook and twitter have.Facebook is estimated to have over 600 million users worldwide, so it’s a fair bet that most readers of this post will know it well already. Google+ is superficially like facebook in that it allows you to post brief status messages, with links, photos, videos and so on. However G+ is quite different in character, more flexible and potentially much more useful for work and communication.

Some may already know Google+, perhaps you signed up enthusiastically but couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I hope you’ll take another look. I think Hangouts are the “killer app” that could make G+ really worthwhile for scientists, academics, students and public – anyone who wants to talk about science (and everyone else, too). To cut to the chase – you can make an online discussion group with up to 9 participants, give a presentation, show your data, run a demo or debug your code. You can even broadcast it all live to an unlimited international audience via YouTube, have it recorded and available for posterity. When you think about it, it’s an amazing development, it’s just that we’ve just got used to this kind of magic nowadays.

G+ is built around the concept of Circles. According to the support pages: “Google+ Circles help you organize everyone according to your real-life social connections. Create circles for every group of people in your life from family to music buddies or alumni. Then you can share relevant content with the right people and find the content you’re interested in.” This means that you can choose which group you are listening to or talking to at any time. So you can simultaneously use G+ to chat to personal friends and family, to collaborate with colleagues, to advise students, each without alienating the other. For example: “Have you read this – I spotted it in the Journal of Neuroscience and it looks very interesting from the abstract” goes to one circle, while “Hehe – baby monkey riding a pig” goes to the other.

However, for me, the main unique strength of G+ is the Hangouts feature which allows you to run a live video conference with up to 9 participants. Face-to-face communication is a natural and leads to frank, direct and fast moving discussions.

Hangouts can be set up for a select group of invited guests, or opened up to wider groups or for anyone to join in. It is free, easy, and all you need is a PC and webcam (<£5 from Tesco). If that was all, Hangouts would be great, but recently Google added several new functions which in my view transform the possibilities for communication in academia and science.

  1. Screen sharing means you can easily switch away from your webcam to your PC display; demos, results, programming, presentations; anything you can show on your screen can be shared with the group.
  2. Optional Live Streaming to YouTube (i.e., a worldwide audience, limited only by the availability of the internet). These “On Air” Hangouts are recorded so they can viewed long after the discussion is over (but you don’t have to keep the video).

I think the Hangouts feature is well worth the price of entry (free) on its own. The main problem with G+ right now is that not everyone has signed up; if you aren’t already I hope you’ll think about it. The video below explains the process (I made it using G+ Hangouts).

I think Hangouts would be great for developing the type of informal discussion which is now building up in blogs and on twitter, for international Journal Clubs, seminars and supervision. It could be a really good way to get scientists talking to the public, too. So many possibilities. From my point of view, that is the point of Google+.

At present G+ seems to lack the critical mass needed to make Hangout discussions easy to get started. People have social media fatigue and are not keen to jump over yet more hurdles to sign up to a new network when the uses are not obvious. A little like twitter and blogs, I think the uses become clearer once one gets involved. I’d like to get a small group together to try out G+ Hangout features soon. Let me know if you’d like to take part.

Further information

Google Videos explaining the key features:

Circles

Hangouts

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About tomhartley

Neuroscientist and University Lecturer in Psychology

4 responses to “What is the point of Google+?”

  1. Nico (@nfanget) says :

    Hi Tom,
    You did not touch on ease of accessibility.
    Hangouts work on mobile/tablets, there are Android and iOS apps, so you can give a group a tour of your lab/house easily. Because it runs in the browser, you can also sign in from any computer to view, and participate if it has a webcam (cybercafe, student shared PC).

    I have been trying to get my dad signed in for ages, so we can do calls together with my brother (3 locations), but no luck so far. As far as I can tell from the few times I’ve used it (both on fast broadband and 3G) it works as well if not better than Skype, although the video quality could be better.

  2. Ed says :

    The reason I expect Google+ to fail is that Google are irritating people by trying to force or trick them into using it. YouTube users are getting sick & tired of seeing those annoying windows that you can’t close until you connect your YouTube account with Google+, after which you can’t find things like your YouTube PMs and other notices.

    If Google+ can’t grow on its own merits, without that kind of coercion and trickery, then it can’t be any good and deserves to fail.

    • Steven says :

      I’m from the “If I want it, I’ll choose to use it” group of people. It really pisses me off how Google seems to believe my life wouldn’t be complete without it and suggests I sign-up at every opportunity. I DON’T have an amazing circle of friends or an awesome fabby lifestyle that suggests I’m lost without G+. I will be the last person on Earth signing up to Facebook and I’m yet to be convinced that G+ isn’t just a ‘Grownups’ Facebook.

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