Barely two weeks old, Google's new social network, Google+, is already scrambling the social media hierarchy. One of its key features -- that your professional and personal lives can go their separate ways -- helps solve a key Facebook drawback. No matter how straitlaced and professional your social media behavior, if your college roommate tags you in the wrong photo, you might have some explaining to do at the office. While Facebook and Twitter have tools to sort contacts into groups, they're not nearly as easy to set up and use as the Google+ version.
Users can sort contacts into various categories such as friends, family, and colleagues, and then share -- and more important, withhold -- specific information with each individual circle, or with all their contacts as a whole. Oversharing on Facebook and other social networks has led to a slew of workplace complications and even firings.
"Social media has not been adopted in the professional world as it has in the personal realm in large part due to an inability to intuitively control and manage information that you're consuming and distributing," says Zach Clayton, CEO of Three Ships Media, a digital marketing agency. "Google's Circles is a major step forward."
Still, social media strategist and career coach Miriam Salpeter cautions that the seeming security of Circles shouldn't make people complacent about what they share online. "Anything you post online is public, even if it's intended for a circle of friends," Salpeter says. "You have to assume whatever you put online could still be seen by a potential boss at some point whether or not you expect them to see it."
But more than just keeping your Friday plans hidden from your boss, Google+ has other features that boost its appeal in the workplace. The group chat feature, Huddles, for example, enables collaboration among colleagues without lengthy email chains or other wrangling, while Hangouts allows for spontaneous group video conferences. Other features like the ability to edit comments you've made and to turn off notifications when discussions you're a part of no longer seem relevant also add professional appeal. And Google in general has a reputation for fostering productivity, as opposed to the fun, but productivity-killing perception of Facebook.
"Facebook has so many more opportunities to waste time flipping through pictures or playing Farmville," says social media strategist Phil Gerbyshak. "It's easy to stigmatize that. But most people are fans of Google and understand that Google is a business productivity tool. I've never talked to anyone who has said Google is a waste of time."
Who Should Be Worried About Google+
While Facebook seems most squarely in Google's sights, Twitter may also be vulnerable. Google+ uses Twitter's asymmetric relationship model, allowing users to follow others without requiring any reciprocal action. But it also encourages deeper content sharing to build closer connections among users, just as Facebook does. "Twitter has a lot of noise out there -- a lot of people sharing a lot of information and not a lot of people sharing comments back on that," Gerbyshak says. "You can't target messages as well on Twitter as you already can on Google+."
Google+ may also have the capacity to win users away from LinkedIn, the top professional social networking site, thanks to an emphasis on content sharing and communication that LinkedIn has only recently started to develop. "If Google is successful in making the Google profile the root profile of an individual's online identity and bridging the gap between the professional and personal, LinkedIn loses the main advantage it has as a clean, streamlined, and professional home on the web," says Christopher Carfi, a vice president at social strategy consulting firm Ant's Eye View.
To be sure, Google+ still has a long way to go to amass the huge numbers of its competitors, and the utility that comes with having those massive networks. At last count, LinkedIn claimed roughly 100 million members, Twitter had more than 200 million registered accounts, and Facebook leads with 750 million users around the world. Google recently announced plans to double the amount of members it's allowing into Google+, but has not indicated how many total members this represents. Google does have the advantage of millions of users who already use its products and would simply need to activate Google+ once the company opens up the network to more people.
"Google Plus may be the next Facebook, or it could be the next Google Wave," says Three Ship's Clayton, referring to an earlier social networking effort by Google that bombed. "We can't say for sure, but this is the strongest effort Google has put out to date, especially for the professional world."
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