Most of everyone that I’m following in tech and higher ed circles has been really excited about Google+ in the past few days. Google has had their real try at social networking and sharing in the works for a long while now. Google Circles was rumored to have been shown to a few at South By Southwest in March, but it turns out that Circles was only one integral part of a larger Google+ experience.
What is Google+?
First of all, a primer for those who haven’t been following this: Google released a +1 button a month and change ago that allowed users to “plus one” a link or page. This was Google’s version of liking a link on Facebook. The only big difference is that the plus ones that your friends hit make an impact on your search results. Instead of a default list of links, you’ll now find the ones relevant to you based on your social graph. (I’m really amused at how this is a big setback for the snake oil salesmen otherwise known as “SEO Experts.”) Google opened up the +1 button to all users and implemented a button that can be embedded on a site’s front page recently, which made the sharing functionality a lot more relevant and useful.
Now, let’s fast forward to about 48 hours ago when Google opened up the entire +1 project to a private beta. It turns out that the search relevance feature was only a small part of a larger social network that’s both similar and a step ahead of Facebook.
One of Facebook’s major problems is that it doesn’t really offer a realistic way of separating your friends into groups. Google essentially does that for you by placing your followers and followees into “circles.” For instance, you might have one for work friends, one for family, one for internet friends, and so on. With those circles, you can share specific content with specific circles. This is a huge improvement upon existing platforms when it comes to contextual sharing, and more important, privacy.
How can it work in Higher Ed?
The circles function allows for what I’m hoping will be a much better social platform for sharing and collaborating in a higher ed context. Of course, it’s going to be easier for university staff and faculty to add one another in a circle specific to that. It’s also going to be ideal for students to add one another in a circle just for them. It might even be great for them to create circles specific to each of their classes. This way, the information relevant to those circles doesn’t become lost in the shuffle, and they will be able to hold online study groups in a manner that doesn’t require responsibilities in time or location.
There are also a few other aspects of +1 that are light years beyond what Facebook currently offers. The one I am most excited about is called Hangout. It rethinks group video chat in a new way that makes it far more casual than what Skype currently shoehorns users in to. Vic Gundotra, the Senior VP of Social at Google, explained how it works in a great metaphor on TWiT’s This Week In Google yesterday. If someone is inside their house at 8pm, they probably would be annoyed if you came in for a visit. But if they are sitting on their front porch, it would be almost rude for you to not at least wave if you walked by. In a nutshell, that’s Hangout’s approach to video chat.
Hangout is what I’m most excited about when it comes to applicability at a university. Students often need to collaborate after hours on group projects, and typically like to share notes (or talk about the instructor behind their back) outside of class. Hangout allows a group of students to meet and ignite discussion in a way far more analogous to “real life” than any other online collaborative tool so far. There’s no need to schedule anything or place anyone in a socially awkward situation. They can just meet online as they are working in a way that’s more like bumping into one another in the University Center. I’ll be teaching a First Year Experience class this Fall, and it frustrates me that I probably won’t be able to encourage the use of this because it likely won’t be public yet.
What are the challenges?
As anyone who has followed Google’s attempts into social knows, they don’t have a great track record. They’ve yet to fully commit to a project like this beyond the attention spans of users who often don’t really grasp it. However, as Gina Tripani points out, this seems as if it’s the culmination of those mistakes.
Another possible challenge to this is Google delaying deployment of this into their university offering. UAH has used Google Apps for Universities for about a year and a half now, and it seems to be stuck in 2009. None of Google’s new projects, even those out of beta, have been deployed there for some time. Google+ seems like such a perfect tool for universities to collaborate with, it would be a shame if it were to suffer the same fate.
The most important challenge to Google+ is going to be adoption. This has to be at least as widely used as Twitter in order to succeed. The tools are in place, but they really have no worth if there aren’t enough users there to take advantage of them. College students are typically a crowd of early adopters, so I am hopeful in that area. I do think that we will think a lot more highly of Google+ in around a year than we did about Wave and Buzz.