UPDATE (9/1/11): I’ve decided to end my use of Google+ due to Google’s intransigence over its identity policy. One Facebook is enough! See you over at the other corporate soul-stealer.
Cory Doctorow sums up the issues better than I could.
So I’ve joined Google+, the fantastic new social network for talking about Google+. (It’s still in private beta, but I have invitations if anyone wants one.) Enthusiasm for the still-developing service has been balanced by skepticism that we actually need another general-purpose social network — see for example what Lorianne DiSabato and Beth Adams have blogged about it. Here are my initial reactions.
1) Facebook has had a “lists” feature for quite some time, supposedly allowing one to keep up with subsets of one’s contacts — family, close friends, blogger buddies, etc. Unfortunately, it never shows me more than the most recent day or two of posts from the lists I’ve set up, and even then doesn’t seem to include everything. Facebook is good at suggesting people I should add to each semi-functional list, which makes me suspect it’s really all about data-mining with advertisers in mind: figure out how specifically we network so they can better target us in coordinated advertising campaigns. Now, there’s no guarantee that Google+’s ballyhooed “circles” won’t have the same ultimate purpose. But the interface for screening one’s data-stream by subset of contacts is much smoother, it’s not three clicks away, and (so far at least) it works.
2) Data portability is a critical issue for me. Google+ lets you download and save all your posts at any time. I like that. Despite my very liberal views on copyright and content-sharing, I don’t like the feeling I get over at Facebook that my content isn’t really my own.
3) Much as I like the 140-character limit at Twitter and Identi.ca as an enforcer of concision and spur to creativity for my microblogging at The Morning Porch, I don’t otherwise see the point, and I resent Facebook limiting the length of status updates. Google+ lets you go on as long as you like. It’s bloggish.
4) While it would be nice to have a “Facebook for grown-ups,” and I’ll be happy if Google+ becomes that and gets mass adoption, at this point I’m most interested in social networking around specific interests or for specific purposes. (Just look at the success of Goodreads among book-readers and Ravelry among knitters.) It’s not clear to me yet whether Google+, with its circles and video-chat “hangouts,” represents a major step forward in this regard. I am considering getting a webcam, though — the possibilities for small-group readings and workshops are very tantalizing. I’ve always hesitated to organize conference calls on Skype due to the sometimes intermittent nature of our internet connection here; far better if it were hosted in the cloud, as Google+ hangouts are. Also, spontaneous get-togethers are often the best kind, and creative types in particular are hard to herd, as would be necessary if I ever tried the Skype approach.
5) Like Beth and Lorianne, I’m a blogger first and foremost. I think that anyone who really has anything to say on a regular basis should have their own blog, and that we should preferentially leave comments about blog posts at the point of origin and stop letting discussions fragment and dissipate at a half-dozen different places where the link might be shared.
6) A link-sharing culture, regardless of its host (Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, etc.) is fundamentally about enthusiasm for things that others have written, captured or made. This is both good and bad. I like the enthusiasm (and the frequent displays of wit), but I get frustrated after a while and want to say, O.K., but what have you made? Where are your poems? Hang out too much with professional writers or artists, though, and you’ll notice that we tend to go in the opposite direction, rarely sharing anything we didn’t make ourselves. Is it possible that our participation in social networks has helped mitigate this tendency a little? Or for those of us who were already blogging before Facebook and Twitter got big, has it actually shrunk our blogs, diminishing the emphasis we once placed on linking out, assembling sidebar linkrolls, and being social, because hey, we’re doing enough of that elsewhere? Self-centered and often anti-social as I am, I do try to strike a balance between self-promotion and other-promotion, but it’s not always easy. I like to think my use of Facebook has forced me to at least stay focused on the problem.
7) Email is still the “killer app” for me and I think for almost everyone over the age of 30. Unlike phone calls or (god help us) instant messaging, it doesn’t interrupt whatever I’m doing and destroy my concentration. We need less distraction, not more. What keeps me involved in online social interactions are email notifications, and the more customizable those notifications are, the happier I am. Facebook has recently gotten pretty good in this regard, letting me decide on a page-by-page and group-by-group basis how I want to be notified. It would be nice if I could do this for each comment thread as well, because some discussions you really want to follow and others, not so much. (I’ve seen participants in Facebook conversations go back and delete their comments just to stop the flood of notifications when the conversation goes on too long!)
It is in this regard that the older blogging platforms are really falling behind WordPress. I’m much less likely to leave a comment anymore if can’t keep track of follow-up discussion via email. I’ll actually be surprised if Blogger doesn’t overhaul its archaic commenting system soon, and introduce a “subscribe to other comments in this thread” feature when it does so. Typepad is probably a lost cause. (Incidentally, for self-hosted WordPress bloggers, I recommend the plugin I’m using, Subscribe to Comments Reloaded, rather than the original Subscribe to Comments, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. Previously I used a different plugin with a double opt-in feature — in other words, the subscriber had to not only check a box, but reply to an email in order to confirm each and every subscription. That’s too many hoops to jump through, I think.)
The point is that for me and I presume most other email-oriented people who want to participate in online conversations, it’s important that we have the option to follow discussions via email — and that we have fine-grained controls, including the option to unsubscribe from any discussion at any time. WordPress.com currently leads the social media field in this regard, which may seem ironic, since WordPress is all about traditional, long-form blogging and website creation rather than social networking. The highlight of the latest version of the software is a distraction-free writing option, which shows what the developers prioritize. At the same time, they have more — and, I gather, better — mobile phone applications than any other blogging platform. But I think it only makes sense that those who most value thoughtful communication would build the best tools for discussion and response.