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There are lots of pluses to Google’s new social networking site

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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I thought Google was supposed to make our lives simpler. Instead, the giant Internet search service has come up with Google+, an impressive new social network that is rapidly becoming another time sink in my too-busy life.

It was easy to ignore Google’s earlier social network efforts. The Orkut service did fine in Brazil and India, but nowhere else. Last year’s Google Buzz began by violating the e-mail privacy of its users and went downhill from there.

But Google+, which launched on a trial basis a couple of weeks ago, has the makings of a first-rate social platform. Google is expanding the service slowly, mostly by invitations from those of us who have already gotten in, so it may take you awhile to score a ticket.

It’s worth the wait. Clearly, some brainy Googlers have gone to school on the two best-loved social sites, Facebook and Twitter, and come up with some shrewd, attractive upgrades. But Google+ can’t supplant Facebook; I’ve got too many friends there. So it’s two online hangouts for me, instead of just one.

The best new idea in Google+ is the concept of “circles,’’ a simple way to organize your online relationships. I have hundreds of Facebook “friends,’’ but hardly any I would ask for a loan. It would be nice to sort out close friends from family members and co-workers. You can do so on Facebook, but it’s not easy.

With Google+ circles, it’s practically painless. There is a circle for friends, acquaintances, family. And you can create more: a school circle or a church circle, for instance. You assign people to one or more circles. When you post a message, you can post it “publicly,’’ so every Google+ user can see it, or deliver it only to one of your circles. Now a snarky comment to your drinking buddies will not scandalize your clients.

Another clever Google+ feature steals a trick from Twitter, the social site that allows 200 million people to exchange brief text messages. While Facebook requires you to be recognized as someone’s “friend’’ before you can see his messages, Twitter lets you “follow’’ almost any user’s postings, with no need to ask permission.

Google+ works much like Twitter. You don’t have to friend people. Just add them to a circle and follow their message postings. Already, I have dozens of strangers following my messages. I can block them if I choose or add them to a circle and begin following them.

Forget Twitter’s notorious 140-character limit on message length. Google+ lets your posts go long. You can include videos, photos, or audio files, just as you would in a Facebook posting.

President Obama, currently the third-most-followed person on Twitter, could use Google+ to blast out full-featured campaign ads to his supporters, rather than just sending them links to YouTube. I have never been a huge Twitter fan, so once Google+ attracts enough users, I may never tweet again.

I am also not much for videoconferencing, but Google+ does a good job of it. Its “hangout’’ system lets any user with a webcam and microphone pop open a video conference space that will hold a total of 10 people. By contrast, Facebook’s new videoconferencing service is one-on-one only.

I stumbled into a hangout last night and was pleasantly surprised by the high-quality audio and pretty decent video. There is a lot of potential here. For business owners, it is a good substitute for a plane ride; for a politician, it is a chance to press the digital flesh. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has already held a Google+ hangout.

There is a lot missing from Google+, mostly because the service is so young. For instance, it is still not possible for outside companies to write compatible software apps. That means you will not find popular games here, such as FarmVille or Mafia Wars. It also needs more smartphone support. There is a good Google+ app for Google’s own Android phones, but nothing yet for Apple iPhones, BlackBerrys, or Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7.

Then there are the missing users. It is estimated that 10 million people are on Google+, but that is not enough. My couple hundred Google+ friends are all like me - technology buffs with a love of old sci-fi movies. It’s like typing into a mirror. On Facebook, my friends include left- and right-wing fanatics and a couple of aging Hollywood starlets. Definitely a more interesting class of people.

Luckily, Google+ is good enough to start packing them in once it is fully opened to the public. It’s a good neighborhood that’s only going to get better.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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