When it comes to new product releases, few companies get as much press and as much response as Google. Just think: three weeks after a limited release of their new social network Google+, the online giant’s attempt to rival Facebook has already reached 10 million users.
So what’s the hype about? And what will this mean for you and your accountability relationships?
What Google+ Means for Privacy
The biggest innovation from Google+ is the way it handles interpersonal relationships. Google+ has done away with the concept of a personal “wall” and a primary Friends list. Instead, they have introduced the concept of circles, which in many ways are a better mimicry of real-life relationships. Google offers several initial circles, such as “Friends,” “Family,” or “Following” (the latter of which including celebrities or thought leaders), but in reality, you can create as many circles as you’d like, with as much crossover as you’d like. I have 15 people in a circle for my church, for example; some (but not all) also cross into the category of “Friends.”
Though it’s public knowledge when you’ve been added to someone’s circle, it is entirely private which circle you’ve been added to (and whether you’ve been added to more than one).
More importantly, this means that you can share a status or link with one group but not another.
Circles, Privacy, and Parenting
This comes as a mixed blessing. Most adults will see the benefits (as many already have). If you want to talk about something fairly personal, you can share it with “Friends” and “Family” without “Acquaintances” seeing it. You can also filter your stream to show only one circle at a time. Let’s say you had two circles: “Close friends and family” and “People I only know in passing.” You could only read the posts in “Close friends and family,” and only write posts to them, and people in the other group would assume that you simply don’t use Google+.
But this also means that new college graduates can keep posting photos of themselves drinking without worrying about prospective employers finding the photos and rejecting them on that basis.
Parents? This means that your kids can add you to their “Family” circle and you wouldn’t have a clue of what they’re posting in their “Friends” circle.
Of course, this functionality has been available on Facebook for quite some time. However, on Facebook, you can go to a person’s profile and see who is in what group, and you have to jump through some admittedly minor hoops to create separate groups in the first place. On Google+, this specific-group sharing is directly integrated, and the groups themselves are hidden, making it much more difficult for parents to monitor who their kids are talking to.
Other Privacy Settings
In a very real sense, Google+ is built on the concept of privacy. There are, of course, potential pitfalls with Circles (as there are with Facebook or other social networks). In terms of your profile information, Google+ stands as a clear winner. While Facebook’s privacy settings are buried deeply and often ignored, Google+ integrates them directly into your profile. In short, you can share pieces of information publicly, or with specific circles, just by updating your profile directly.
This privacy is by no means a revolutionary concept. Facebook’s privacy options are pretty robust…if you take the time to look for them and set them. But between integrated privacy settings and an emphasis on creating unique posts for unique Circles, Google+ has a fairly large advantage over the older social network, contributing to its fairly substantial early adoption.
There is one thing to be aware of. If you want to set up Google+ on your mobile device, you are required to agree that Google will use your location. While you can turn off geolocation options in photos and choose against sharing your location in status updates, this requirement is somewhat disconcerting.
What Will Google Do With Your Data?
You may limit your settings to prevent certain people from seeing certain information, but that doesn’t mean that Google doesn’t have it on file. Like Facebook before it, do not doubt that Google will track anything that you “+1″ (the Facebook equivalent of “like”) and will use your personal data, like location, to target both ads and content to you.
For example, if you set your location to New York City and have one of your “Sparks” (personal interests) set to classical music, it is highly likely that in addition to showing ads about concerts in NYC, your search results themselves will be tailored to match these interests. Let’s say you’re looking into private school options for your child. If someone else who lives in NYC and who loves classical music has “+1″ed a specific private school, that school may show higher in your search rankings.
This is still hypothetical for the most part, but it’s a common marketing technique. Amazon recommends books, movies, and music based on what you look at and purchase, for example. And in theory, these practices actually make your browsing experiences better and more relevant for you. However, given Google’s omnipresence (like the Chrome browser and the Android mobile operating system), it becomes a more disturbing trend.
What Google+ Means for You and Your Family
All things considered, Google+ is likely going to stick around for a while. So what should you do about it? How can you handle it without letting it become a potential pitfall?
Monitor your use.
Knowing you’re being monitored changes what you do online, so make sure you’re being held accountable for your use of Google+. Covenant Eyes is making this easy; we’ve set Google+ to rate at least T (Teen), like we’ve rated Facebook and Twitter. If you or your kids choose to use Google+ frequently, you’ll be able to generate a report in your account at the T level to see when Google+ is accessed. (You’ll need their username and password to actually see all activity.)
Set rules for your kids.
Since Google+ is so new (it’s still open by invitation only), you may decide that you don’t want your kids to use it at all until it’s more established. Or you may allow them to use it, but prohibit “Hangouts” (online video chats with as many as 10 people). Whatever you decide, make sure you sit down with your kids and establish not just the rules, but the reasons behind them. And if you do allow your kids to use it, remember that being added to one of their circles isn’t enough. Make sure you have their username and password, and make sure they know you’re checking it regularly.