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Google+ Gives the Rare Gift of Internet Privacy to Social Networking

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Google Plus, or Google+, is the new social networking offering from Google. This is the third time that Google has tried to get into the social networking sphere, and this time they may have gotten things exactly right. Google+ is not quite Twitter, but it does have some Twitter-like features. Google+ is not quite Facebook, but likewise has some Facebook-like features. It is not quite a newsletter program, but has some components of those as well. And it has something that neither of those social networking giants have - extensive and easily-customizable privacy settings. For the segment of the online population that has always been reluctant to get into social networking due to a vague sense of unease about privacy, Google+ is probably going to satisfy them completely.

This is because Google+ is all about privacy. As a social networking platform, you add contacts to your contact list by name and email address. Then, Google+ prompts you to add these contacts to Circles. Google+'s Circles are the key to privacy online, and they are there to ease to everyone's worries. Default circles include Friends, family, and Acquaintances, but you can quickly add your own. One popular circle is Coworkers, and another is Online Friends. Sometimes you have a funny picture of a cat that you want to share, but you know that while your online buddies would probably love to see it, your boss might not appreciate the humor involved. You simply post the picture to your Google+ stream, and select the Online Friends circle. Then, only people who are in that circle will see the hilarious cat photo.

But things get much more interesting than that. Google+ can and does function similarly to Twitter. If you feel like sharing a short message with the whole world, just like on Twitter, you can post it publicly. Then, anybody who cares to look at your profile, or who has you in one of their Circles, will get the message. An advantage that Google+ has over Twitter in this case is that the messages can be longer than the 140 characters allowed there, which means you don't have to mangle the English language to get your point across.

If you only want to share a message with a select group of people, you can choose only your Coworkers circle or your Business Contacts circle to share things with. So when you want to talk about your latest insights into better TPS reports, you can share that with only the circles who care. And when you want to share hilarious cat photos with your family, just post it to the Family circle, and your boss at work will not be annoyed with your attempt at humor, since he is in the Boss circle. This particular functionality in Twitter would have saved Anthony Weiner's political career. He could have posted his public musings on Rex Ryan's plans for Medicare to the Constituents circle, and he could have posted pictures of his ripped pecs to his Hotties circle, and there would never have been any scandal. For him, it's a pity Google+ didn't come out last month.

Like Facebook, Google+ also lets you upload and show photos on your profile. However, unlike Facebook, any photo that you upload to Google+ can only be seen by you until you share it with certain Circles. This default privacy functionality goes quite well with Google+'s mobile application, which has the option to let you automatically upload every photo that you take with your phone. So you have automatic backups for all the photos you take, and they are available online for anything you'd like to do, but not everyone has to see them. You can show wedding photos to your Family circle, photos of your coworkers slacking off to your Boss circle, and never the twain shall meet.

One important difference between Google+ and Facebook is the absence of a Wall. This is likely part of the emphasis on privacy that Google+ obsesses about, because having other people post random messages to your wall that anyone else can then see could create some embarrassing situations that it would be better to avoid. Just another privacy-related tweak that puts Google+ ahead of the other social networking options available today.

But one unique feature that no other social network offers really shows off the power of Google+. If you add someone to your Google+ contact list, and put them in a circle, and they are not a member of Google+ themselves, you can still communicate with them without any problem. When you post a message or share some photos with the Circle they are in, Google+ asks you if you would like to email the people who are not yet part of Google+. Therefore, you can still send those wedding photos to your grandparents even though they are not hip to the latest computer-related shenanigans that you get up to. Most grandparents are email literate, if not social networking literate, so it should be a breeze for you to stay in touch with them, now more than ever. Also, you can take that stack of ten thousand business cards lying in a box in the corner, enter them into Google+, and use it as a sleek business contact mailing list. Email messages sent with Google+ have both a link to join Google+ and an unsubscribe link at the bottom, so you would not even be bothering people unnecessarily.

Google+ combines existing online communication products together in the cleanest, most easily-usable interface yet seen online. Communication using Google+ is safe, private, and far-reaching. Even though the system is in beta now, and signups are hard to come by, it is already showing itself to be the next-generation social network backed up by the largest and most customer-oriented online company today. This reporter is definitely going to be using it for the foreseeable future, and I hope to see you in one of my circles soon!

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