The pros and cons of Google+: Early users weigh in on the newest social media platform

Congrats! You’ve scored an invite to Google+. Now what?

Google’s social media platform launched on June 28 with a limited roll-out. Social media buffs clamored for invites, posting desperate pleas on Twitter and Facebook. Snagging an invite to Google+ was a sign that you were a cutting-edge techie.

Now that Google+ is growing by leaps and bounds (one analyst claims the service now has 10 million users), the initial excitement is leading to confusion.

Does Google+ actually offer users anything that Facebook and Twitter don’t?

The jury is still out on Google+, as you can see from this Twitter comment by Meagan Adele Lopez. Meagan was one of a dozen users who responded to my query, “What is your first impression of Google+?” While this was not a scientific poll, their answers meshed with my own thoughts on the service.

This brilliant illustration by Roy Marvelous of Cruisesurfingz sums up our Google+ experience:

"Stages of Google+ Emotions" by Roy Marvelous (cruisesurfingz.com).

All the joy of a ‘tech conference’

In one week, I experienced every stage of the Google+ life cycle:

disinterest > intrigue > joy > confusion

I was elated to get a Google+ invite from fellow traveler Lily Leung on July 5th. I immediately logged on, updated my profile and began searching for friends to add to my “circles.” I’d experienced this rush before, when Facebook and Friendster launched; except this time, barely anyone I knew was on Google+.

I resorted to begging for Google+ friends on my Facebook page:

Alas, few travelers stepped forward. Invites were still in short supply and it seemed like the only people on Google+ were social media marketers and bloggers. Roy Marvelous once again captured the mood in a Google+ post:

Most of the posts on Google+ in the early days were about Google+, so I picked up helpful tips and news about the service. I found myself interacting with a totally different set of people than on Twitter and Facebook, where my contacts tend to be in the travel industry (bloggers, PR reps and enthusiasts). I enjoyed the feeling of being “in the know” and reading the musings of tech insiders.

Still, it wasn’t fun… it was simply informational. In the words of travel blogger Roni Weiss:

For some Google+ users, the experience has been underwhelming.

The learning curve

Once they’ve filled in their profile and added a few friends to their circles, Google+ users are left wondering, now what? There is no definitive guide to the service, so users must learn about features in piecemeal.

When travel blogger The World of Deej posted a Facebook update with a link to his Google+ profile, one of his followers replied,

“I *think* I added you, but not positive.”

Learning the ropes takes time and effort, which taxes the resources of users who already juggle several social media pages.

‘Circles’ and privacy

The most obvious difference between Google+ and Facebook are its friendship “circles.” In theory, this makes it easier to protect your privacy. While you can’t have a totally private, unsearchable profile, youΒ  can chooseΒ  to limit your information to users in specific circles.

Circles appeal to users who are frustrated with Facebook’s confusing privacy settings:

On Google+, you must add a user to one of your circles in order to follow them; they do not know what list you place them in. Standard circles include friends, family and acquaintances, but you can add new categories. I created a circle for travelers, since most of my social media contacts are travel bloggers.

For some users, circles seem to take away privacy instead of enhance it:

When it comes to amassing friends, Google+ is more like Twitter than Facebook: you can follow people who aren’t following you back. It puts the burden on users to mark their content “for friends” or “for circles” so they aren’t shared widely.

The downside: There is high potential for an accidental, Anthony Weiner-style public post.

Unique features

Thought Twitter was a time suck? Wait until you try Google+!

I find it incredibly hard to ignore the little red box at the top of my Gmail inbox, which announces new Google+ activity. If I click on the icon, I can check my Google+ updates without ever leaving Gmail. Needless to say, checking Google+ is more addictive than a marathon of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

Google+ is integarted with Gmail, so you can check your Google+ updates via your inbox.

Integration with Gmail is a major “pro.” Other draws include:

Only one of my 85 followers (friends? fans? circle buddies?) claims to have used “Hangout,” which is a key point of differentiation between Google+ and Facebook. This feature allows up to 10 users to have a group video chat.

This feature is perhaps the most intriguing, and would be useful for journalists (video interviews) and travelers (virtual tweetups).

In fact, a traveler meetup has already been born (in theory). During a discussion with fellow bloggers, Travmonkey.com editor Paul Dow suggested naming it “Google Plus Travelers Hangout,” or #GPTH. While I think this acronym sounds like a sneeze, I’m excited at the prospect of meeting– and seeing– other bloggers on Google+.

Is it a fad?

If it’s true 10 million users are active on Google+, it would be hard to dismiss the platform as a fad. But it remains to be seen if Google+ will replace Facebook, which has 750 million users.

Only time will tell if this prediction– from blogger and self-proclaimed “nomadic tech worker” Josh Cohen– will pan out:

Your opinion

What do you think of Google+? Share your first impression by leaving a comment below!

You can also join the discussion on Google+ at gplus.to/lesliekoch, on Twitter (@leslietravel) or on Facebook (Facebook/DowntownTraveler).

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About Leslie Koch

I'm a New Yorker with a passion for travel and art. I founded DowntownTraveler.com after returning from a year-long backpacking trip around the world. Find me on Twitter at @leslietravel.