Google+ an aid worker’s view
(Image courtesy of the ever excellent xkcd)
Those of you who follow this blog have probably (like me) been distracted by playing with Google plus for the last couple of weeks. But the vast majority of people are still probably thinking “”Google what?”
I’ve held off writing about Google plus for a little while until I had a chance to figure it out a bit beyond the initial “ooh shiny” that makes me try out all these things, be breathlessly enthusiastic and then lose interest (my own software adoption hype cycle). Now I’ve been using it for a couple of weeks I think I’m in a better place to be able to share some thoughts on how it is as a tool and how it might possibly be used in aid/development work. (Note: many others have written much more extensive analyses of the product itself and its market positioning)
In looking at new social networking tools it’s important to consider two things:
1. The tool itself
2. The network and type of conversations it attracts or is likely to attract.
Often reviews focus entirely on the first of these overlooking the second. But starting with the tool:
Google plus has a nice clear fairly intuitive interface with status updates, links and photo sharing, individual profiles and an activity stream to look at the latest updates from those people you choose to follow. You can also “+1” or share a post you like made by someone else. For those people already used to using facebook and twitter and other social networking tools it will seem fairly familiar. But it does have a few novel features:
Circles – Instead of having symmetrical relationships such as friends in facebook or connections in linkedin, or having an asymmetrical list of people who you follow like twitter, G+ asks you to assign contacts to “circles”. These circles are groupings of people that you can manage however you like. Common defined circles might be “family”, “friends”, “colleagues” or topic based such as “ICT for Development” or geographically based like “Africa”. The idea behind circles is that you can use them as a quite sophisticated way of deciding who you share your content with – is it just with colleagues or industry peers, or with family. That way my boss doesn’t need to see my family photos and by personal friends don’t need to hear me banging on about the UN. I can also use the circles to filter content shared with me. You can share content with named individuals or make it “public” so that anyone who has added me to a circle or who views my profile can see it. The circles are private so you can’t see if I put you in my “close friends” circle or in my “ignore these windbags” circle.
The circles functionality is a little complicated to get the hang of, and generally most things I still share as public, but it is quite powerful in that it allows you quite a fine grained way of sharing content and organizing contacts.
Huddles and Hangouts – these allow you to join a group live text chat (Huddle), or group video chat (Hangout) with people in your circles. These are quite novel and powerful ways to allow you to communicate with others in real time. The video chat allows up to 10 simultaneous participants – much more than skype and so people have been raving out its possibilities for organizing training, or for organizing “fireside chats” with the CEO or live communication with major donors. While I think there are a lot of great possibilities with this – I think the best ways are still yet to emerge as most people seem to be just playing with it at the moment. I think the best uses for this are for very informal and unstructured interactions – but possibly organized at regularly scheduled times so people know to turn up for them (e.g. we’ll be chatting about “Smart Aid” every Tuesday so come join the hangout). The structure of the hangout is very democratic (anyone in an invited circle can see the hangout and join/leave at any time – you can’t manually add or remove anyone) so they are probably not good if you want to use them for something highly structured. You also can’t (yet?) share your screen which limits the use for training.
G+ also has integration with other Google products including working well with Chrome and showing G+ notifications neatly in G-mail – and having a nice top bar that quickly links you to other google services. Apparently there are still some issues with interaction with Google Apps for those companies using these – but these are being worked on.
G+ is still under development and they have been quick to seek and act on user feedback so I expect the platform to get better and more full featured in the coming months – but there are a few things which are currently missing which include i) a published API to allow third party add-ons (this is in the works), ability to easily cross post to/from twitter and facebook or to share web pages with G+ using utilities such as hootsuite, tweetdeck or addthis (although there are a few nice chrome extension already such as “surplus” which allows you to post your current page to G+). Also a few things such as being able to create publicly visible/shareable circles (to use as contact lists), would be very valuable.
As to the network itself: G+ is still available on limited invite only (although with over 10 million sign-ups already it can hardly be considered exclusive anymore). Thus far it’s mainly lots of technology people and “early-adopter” types, with an increasing number of tech-savvy international development people. In this regard it feels much more like twitter than facebook. The content that I see is more news/work related rather than the more personal sharing that you tend to see on facebook.
Whether this becomes more broadly used in the development world will depend a lot on what happens after the first wave of adopters. My feeling is that after an initial interest when it is fully opened, growth of use will slow considerably. There is already a crowded field of social networks and so despite some of the technology pluses – it will be a harder sell to broader audiences, if they don’t see a clear advantage over twitter and facebook. It is a bit more complicated, and slightly less intuitive to use than either of these and so casual users of these tools may not see the benefit of joining, especially if the people they want to hear from are already on their current networks.
Another issue will be the level of marketing in the developing world. Although the trial phase is obviously atypical, membership seems heavily skewed to North America and also apparently thus far male dominated. This will need to change sooner rather than later if later joiners are to feel welcome. Bandwidth for the “hangouts” and ability to contribute via SMS will also be challenges.
This means in the development field its use will more likely be for professional networking collaboration and knowledge sharing, and less for public broadcasting and fundraising with broader audiences. There’s might also be a niche for not for profits to reach out to major donors, volunteers and activists – although this is likely to be a different and more narrow audience than can be reached through facebook at least for a while. Also that for a while at least this will be among the tech-savvy rather than the many development workers who struggle with the idea of using new technology more generally.
It will be interesting to see age-demographics for G+ users. Will it be adopted by young people as a possible tool for digital activism? I haven’t seen any reliable data on this as yet (it’s probably too soon to tell) but this will be an interesting dimension to watch and will have a big impact on its potential in the developing world. Already it seems that early adopters are overwhelmingly male, which is not a good sign, although this imbalance may be diminishing as sign-up increases.
Overall, I think the Google team have come up with a promising product that looks good and works well. It includes some of the best of the features of existing networks, and although it looks more like Facebook, it might actually function more like an enhanced twitter in terms of how it is used and who is using it. I look forward to seeing how it gets adopted by the development community – it has great potential – IF it can get beyond being a silo for the technology and social networking elite and start penetrating broader audiences, especially in development agencies and NGOs and more importantly in developing countries.
The wider challenge is that adoption of social media among the groups that aid agencies are trying to work with is still very limited, and I’m not sure if the introduction of G+ will do much to change this.
For a comprehensive overview of G+ and how it works check out this excellent resource from Mashable: Google+: The Complete Guide
For some good tips on applying G+ to not-for profit work check out this blog post from Amy Sample Ward.
And come circle me on G+ as I figure it out: http://gplus.to/ithorpe