Google+, which launched a month ago to great fanfare, is so far feeling more like Google nonplussed. Reported to have crossed the 20-million-user mark last weekend, the new social networking site is designed to correct one of Facebook's major drawbacks: the problem of too much information being shared with too many people.
Instead of all social contacts being lumped into one huge group (meaning that your boss and your mother and your best friend from clown college all see the same posts), Google+ lets you compartmentalize people into circles: friends, family, acquaintances and a category called "following," which appears to be for people whose updates you're interested in but who you don't care to have any real life interaction with. You can also create customized circles that narrow your contacts even more: knitting group, people from dog park, people from high school you vaguely remember, people from high school you have no recollection of whatsoever. The possibilities are apparently endless.
There's a video-conferencing feature called "hang out," a group-texting service called Huddle and plenty of other stuff guaranteed to suck even more time out of your day than you thought you had, but so far no one seems to be using much of it. My feed, or "content stream," (yes, I joined up) shows a lot of people saying, in effect, "Is this thing on?"
Sure, there's a sense of excitement in being an early adopter and, in this case, an air of exclusivity that comes from the fact that membership, at this point, is "by invitation only" (though invites aren't too hard to come by). But with so many people's Web browsers bookmarked with so many different online versions of the high school dance (if Facebook is like homecoming, Twitter is like the prom and MySpace is a freshmen ice cream social that somehow turned into a rave), it's no surprise that the question that comes after "Is this thing on?" is often "What am I doing here?"
My first instinct is to say that what we're doing primarily is wasting our time and worse. As my husband wisely points out, there is nothing anyone can post on Facebook that makes you like or respect them more than you did before. Your reputation can only lose luster or remain the same. (Indeed, that is why I have blocked my husband from viewing my Facebook page.)
When it comes to Twitter (which I also initially mocked but ended up joining), I've noticed that the more tweets I see from folks in a short period of time, the more I begin to wonder whether they're receiving the proper psychiatric care. When I see that someone's on MySpace, LinkedIn or Foursquare, I assume he or she is in a band, have some really boring job or are incapable of going anywhere alone, respectively.
I know these are unfair assumptions, and I know I'm doing some big-time generalizing here (though I have yet to hear a compelling argument for the GPS-driven, friend-locating service that is Foursquare, which seems useful primarily if you want to avoid running into someone). In simpler times we judged people according to the crowds they ran with; we now must form opinions based not only on people's "friends" but the platforms on which they choose to collect them.
Google+, on the other hand, is so far largely impervious to such judgments. It's so new that it has no identity and therefore no stigma. I haven't yet posted something to lower my husband's estimation of me because, like 99 percent of people I know, he's not on it. That will change, of course; users are believed to be increasing at a rate of 1 million a day.
For now, though, I have to admit I kind of like it. There's mystery and potential here, a little like the allure and do-over possibilities of moving to a new town in ninth grade.
Not that I don't still think all of these social networking sites are hijacking our lives. Surely even the most ardent Facebookers won't lie on their deathbeds one day saying, "I should have 'liked' more posts." But given the choice between the homecoming dance and this awkward new dance that is Google+, I'll choose awkwardness.
Besides, right now all anyone's doing is getting drunk in the parking lot. And that can be the best part.
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