Google recently announced its new Google+ social network, but didn't really show us much of what it actually felt like to use. We got our hands on a few invites to show you how it looks, feels, and how you might use it.
While different from other networks like Facebook and Twitter, the basics of Google+ will seem pretty familiar. You have a feed of the posts, links, photos and other info your friends have shared, and you can view their specific updates (as well as personal info about them) via their profile. You can share status updates, links, photos, videos, or even places yourself, and they'll show up in your stream and on your profile. Every shared item has a "+1" button, which is pretty much identical to Facebook's "Like" button—a way for people to say the like the post without writing out a full comment.
While creating "lists" of friends is also nothing new, Google+ makes it much easier to do than other networks, and it's much more central to the "philosophy" of the network. To create a "circle" of friends, you just go to your friends page, and drag and drop users into one of your circles. These can be anything—friends, family, sci-fi geeks, people that like cat pictures, and so on. Google has a few predefined circles, and you can create your own.
When you share something new, Google+ asks you which circles you want to share it with. This avoids the always-default "public" sharing of Facebook and Twitter, where you share your thoughts with everyone, and instead encourages you to share certain things only with the people that would be interested. You can opt to make certain posts public, but by default, Google will prompt you every time you share to pick a list of friends with whom to share your status.
Sparks is something we haven't seen much in other networks, in the sense that you can not only share content, but discover it in the same place. From the main Sparks page, you can type in your interests and add them to your sidebar. From there, you can click on any interest and read recent articles, books, or other content that relate to it. You can also share it directly from that page with your friends, which is pretty cool.
It's a nice feature, and definitely innovative, but it'll be interesting to see how this one's actually used. It seems rare that you'd ever stop reading your own favourite blogs and feeds, and sharing stuff from there—so it really just adds one more feed to your list. You can, of course, share links on Google+ from anywhere, not just those that show up in Sparks.
Hangouts is a really cool feature that, on the surface, is just group video chatting (but really great group video chatting, mind you). What makes it neat is that it's much more inviting than other video chat services. Instead of planning video chats ahead of time, Google+ gives you a "start a hangout" button, which will then publish an update to your wall saying, for example, "Whitson Gordon is hanging out". Anyone you've let see that update can then come and go as they please, which in theory will make people more likely to video chat on a whim, or just to say hi.
You can also watch YouTube videos in sync with the other people in the hangout, which is a great way to share those funny videos you find and see your friends' reactions. Check out our test drive of Hangouts to see how it runs.
That's all Google+ really has going on, right now. There are some hidden little features that are great (like the ability to j/k through status updates, as you can in Gmail and Google Reader), but it isn't necessarily as mature or fully-featured as some of the social networks you know and love. It is definitely a work in progress, as Google says, but it's one definitely worth checking out if you can snag an invite. It has added quite a few things we haven't seen in other social networks, making it a compelling service. Hit the link below to request an invite, and now that you've seen a bit more of what it's like, share your thoughts with us in the comments.