Thursday April 24th 2014

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Plus ça change?

Google +: Facebook slayer or privacy exploiter? Yet another log in, or the dawn of a new age? Asset? Liability? Plus? Minus?! Launched to great fanfare in September 2011, commentators pounced gleefully on Google +, Google’s latest attempt to join the social media bandwagon. For the uninitiated,  Google +, (also known as G+) is technically a social network that integrates Facebook style personal profiles, status updates and friendships with Twitter style information sharing, within a familiar, easy to use Google format. It claimed to fix many of the privacy problems associated with Facebook, which, at 7 years old, is now the grandmother of social media.

The jury is still out on the success of Google +. While it integrates many useful features, many users did not think it was worth migrating to a new social media service. However, while much commentary has focused on Google + as a social network, there has been much less focus on Google +’s other features which, in my opinion, make it a serious rival to many VOIP (eg Skype), IM and other educational services. While I’m the first to admit that I haven’t fully engaged with Google + yet, my dislike for Facebook remains thinly veiled (the future’s Twitter shaped- just sayin’…) and I think it’s worthwhile to highlight a few uses of Google + within academia.

Firstly, a couple of the greatest advantages of Google + are the “hangout” and “circle” features. A “hangout” is Google’s equivalent of a Skype call on steroids. Not only can you video chat with up to 10 people (for free!), hangouts can also integrate with Google Docs, meaning that a group can collaboratively edit documents or share screens while video chatting.  The “circle” is a way to categorise your contacts into friends, acquaintances or colleagues. While this may sound a little utilitarian, even the hardened facebook fans among you must admit that the ability to share your favourite “i can haz cheezburger” clips among just your closest friends would have been an advantage. Lastly, (and unsurprisingly!) Google + is searchable, meaning that it is an awful lot easier to find that information that you vaguely recall someone posted about.

The benefits to libraries are also obvious. The “circle” means that privacy in Google + is much improved. While it could be difficult to separate information shared between students, administrators and colleagues on Facebook, people can be categorised into different groups on Google +, meaning that information can be tailored to each group. Useful if you’re liaison to different departments, or want to share different information between grad students, undergrads and faculty. The hangouts is the feature that I’m most excited about though- imagine being able to see the student’s screen while you chat or IM. No longer will you have to write out essays about how to get from the catalog to the database, or wonder why they can’t see that blindingly obvious button. Coming up with some great search strategies? Add them to a shared document while you work, and the student can refer back to them later. You could hold virtual office hours in Google +; or what about a book club or review session when papers are due? Google + gives a lot of flexibility, which could work well as student schedules become more elastic.

There are many ways in which Google + can be frustrating. Users need a Google account to participate- and this could raise questions about how personal data is used to filter/change your web experience in the future. A small download is needed for the hangouts, and the more public nature of Google + means that many may worry about sharing private information. Lastly, because it is so new, there are fairly frequent changes, which can get frustrating.

Ultimately, though, Google is an information processing giant, and Google + provides an easy way for people to find and talk about new information, and for companies to market themselves and to reach out to users. If libraries want to remain in the business of knowledge creation, then Google + provides an interesting glimpse of the future. Furthermore, as Google Apps for Education starts to integrate Google + features into academia, students are only going to become more accustomed to working with this functionality. Google + probably isn’t a Facebook killer (boo!) However, as a communication and information tool, it is a great addition (geddit?!) to the web 2.0 world.

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