But with the arrival of Google+, Google’s latest foray into social media, these two giants could be facing their first credible challenger. Just over a month after launching, Google+ has already amassed about 25 million users and more people are signing up every day.
While it might be a bit early to be predicting what sort of staying power Google+ will have, it no doubt has potential as a tool for journalists.
This article gives a brief overview of what Google+ is and how journalists could use it. But to really get to grips with Google+, it is best to set up an account on the new social network and experiment with it for yourself.
Google+ is currently in a ‘field testing’ phase, so you need an invite before you can get started. If friends or colleagues have accounts, they should be happy to send you one!
Once you’ve started an account, one of the first things that strikes you about Google+ is its clean user interface, which is set up in a similar way to Facebook’s, with recent updates occupying a central column. Other information is placed around the page.
Google+ organizes contacts using a unique asymmetrical following system, which has shades of both Facebook and Twitter. Rather than requesting to become friends with someone (ala Facebook) or following them outright (like Twitter), Google+ employs a system that allows you to add people to different categories called ‘Circles’.
The default circles have names like ‘Friends’, ‘Family’ or ‘Following’ and you can easily place people you would like to connect with into their relevant circles. The other person does not have to confirm they know you in order for you to add them, although they do receive a notification email that you have added them to one of your circles.
Once you add someone to your circle you will be able to see a percentage of their posts (more about that later) in your Google+ stream. You can read through updates from all of your circles or choose to browse through updates from a specific circle. For example, you can elect to just see the updates from your ‘Friends’ circle.
Google+’s following system also affects how content is shared. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where everything you post is automatically shared with your friends/followers, Google+ enables you to control who sees your updates. If you would like to post a photo for only your friends to see, you can ensure that only people in your ‘Friends’ circle receive it. Alternatively, you can choose to send your updates to everyone in your circles or make an update publicly available so that anyone on Google+ can see it.
The types of updates you can send out are quite flexible. You can post short messages or entire articles (some people have actually taken to using Google+ as their blogging platform of choice) in the text field, attach photos, links or videos, and even geotag your post with your current location. Once you’ve sent out an update you also have the option of going back and editing it, which is useful if you want to correct a mistake or add some new information.
However, returning once more to Google+’s following system, for the people you are following to see your updates they must have added you to their own circles. Otherwise they will be oblivious to your posts. It’s a bit like following people on Twitter – you might follow Stephen Fry and get his tweets but if he doesn’t follow you back he doesn’t see yours.
Once your updates have appeared in their feeds, people who have you in their circles can +1 (i.e. ‘like’) your posts or comment on them. If a post receives multiple comments, this input is automatically threaded together. As a result, Google+ does a good job hosting conversations.
People can also share your post with their specified circles, much like how content is reblogged on Tumblr. Many journalists and bloggers are finding that this sharing system is enabling their content to spread through Google+ very quickly.
Unlike tweets or Facebook statuses, Google+ updates are not ordered chronologically. The social network’s algorithm is weighted towards putting posts that have received a lot of activity to the top of your feed. This reduces Google+’s effectiveness for following breaking news or real time updates, but it does mean that popular posts have a lot of staying power and don’t sink out of view as fast as most tweets.
Because of its innovative following system, journalists can effectively categorise connections and ensure that their messages get out to the intended audience. This system also means journalists can use Google+ to present a social or professional image, depending on the ‘circles’ they are mixing with.
In a professional environment, Google+ circles could be set up for contacts within a particular company, on a particular round or from a certain area. People who you add don’t necessarily need to be confined to the one circle - for example someone could easily go in a circle named ‘Melbourne’ and one named ‘Education’.
However, it’s Google+’s features that will no doubt be of most interest to a lot of journalists. For instance, Google+’s Sparks feature is a recommendation engine that allows users to find interesting content by topic. The service has some suggested interests but you can add a spark for whatever you like. The feature will then suggest links to interesting content on your chosen topic based, in part, on what other users have +1’d.
At the moment the results are patchy, but they could improve over time if more people start using Google+ and the +1 button gains more currency on the web. If the quality of Sparks results does improve, it could well rival the popular recommendation engine StumbleUpon and become a barometer of what people are currently finding interesting within a certain topic, which is a useful thing for journalists to be able to gauge.
One of the most exciting features of Google+ is its Hangouts feature, a video chatting tool that allows up to ten people to teleconference at once. You can start a hangout and invite people to it, and like all of Google+’s social features you can elect which circles or which individuals you want hang out with.
Once in a hangout, you can also text chat and watch YouTube videos. A recently added feature even allows you to watch content that is being livestreamed through YouTube Live.
Setting up a hangout could be useful if you want to interview multiple people at once or conduct a debate between two people with opposing views.
I used a Google+ hangout to discuss Google+ with a group of local journalists who are well versed in social media, recorded the video using some screen recording software and uploaded it to YouTube. I also added some supers and edited it down (as everyone who was involved will attest, there were some occasional technical difficulties). The result emulates a cable news interview with multiple participants but cost nothing to produce.
Watch the Hangout discussion below. The participants are: Nick Evershed, a multimedia producer at Fairfax; Kristofor Lawson, a news librarian and social media manager at Network Ten Melbourne; Danny Tran, a journalist Fairfax Community Network; and Brendan Casey, a social media editorial assistant for the Herald Sun.
Some journalists have already taken advantage of the Hangouts feature to increase their engagement with audiences. In the United States, news anchor Sarah Hill utilised the feature to discuss the day’s news with viewers during newscasts.
Finally, Google+ has its own iPhone and Android app, which allows you to post to your circles or check recent updates. These apps also have an optional function that automatically uploads all pictures and videos you take with your phone to Google+, queuing the content up in case you would like to share it with your circles later.
Like any social network, Google+ will only be as good as the people who use it. Being able to videoconference with up to ten people doesn’t mean anything if there is nobody worth speaking to on the service to begin with! Once Google+ moves beyond its early adopters, it will be interesting to see how it develops.
Google is not allowing organizations to set up profiles on Google+ at this point in time, so the Melbourne Press Club does not currently have a Google+ presence. However, once this feature is implemented you will certainly be able to find us on there!
-CRAIG BUTT, MPC DIGITAL PRODUCER
Introducing the Google + project: Google's official blog gives a nice overview of Google+ and includes plenty of videos that show the new social network in action.
Google+ Manual, a collaborative document: This unofficial guide to Google+ on Google Docs goes into some more depth explaining Google+, including some useful keyboard shortcuts and some frequently asked questions about the social network.
The Mother of All Google+ Resource Lists: The Next Web has this exhaustive collection of extensions that third party developers have made to improve Google+.