Social behavior is a strangely integral part of the Internet as we know and use it today, and in many ways it has been from the very beginning. Message boards, IRC channels, image hosting sites, and email have always existed as important social components to the Internet. And in much the same way smartphones have pulled together many different single-purpose technologies into a single thought, social networks have come to exist as massive communication hubs that act for many people as the homepage of the Internet.
Google's efforts in social networking are many, and while none of them has seen the kind of global acceptance that its search, video, and email services have enjoyed, Google's most recent efforts in this space have advanced the state of the market in some unique ways. Google+ is, first and foremost, a platform focused on bringing all of Google together for users to enjoy. Whether that also means it's a social network for everyone is for you to decide for yourself.
As is often the case with Google products, this latest effort into the social space started with an invite system. This meant the influx of tech nerds was very high at the beginning, and that group of users did a great job planting flags and claiming the network for themselves. When Google opened the doors for everyone, it did so by baking the platform into almost all of its products. It turns out not everyone with an Android phone, Gmail account, or a YouTube channel wanted an invitation to Google+ snuck under their digital pillow, and the usual angry shouting that follows something only served to direct more attention to the network. It also meant that there were a lot of accounts created in the early days that barely go used, which will become important later.
Google's strengths for this social network are many, but the two huge things that make this network special can be found in photo and video. Google+ is designed to allow anyone to upload high-resolution photos without interfering with the quality of the image, something that can't be said of the competition. Shortly after launch, the company began implementing high-quality photo editing features as well, making it so amateur photographers and would-be lifebloggers with smartphones alike could take a decent photo and turn it into something great.
In video, Google+ has Hangouts. It's a video chat service that allows up to 10 users to chat at the same time for free, and in many cases even broadcast and record that chat through a YouTube channel. As a free service, Google Hangouts and Hangouts on Air remain unparalleled and continue to improve today.
Arguably the best part of Google+ is the app. It looks and works great on iOS and Android alike, and the app was built from the ground up to function such that users never need to use the website if they prefer to do things mobile. It's a powerful mobile experience that includes the same photo editing and most of the same video chat tools. If most of your friends and family are Google+ users, the location sharing functional in the app is a fantastic way to check out how far away someone is from meeting up with you somewhere, and if you're using Google+ as a business or group the ability to switch back and forth between accounts that have been assigned to you is noticeably better than some of the other social networks.
So who uses Google+? Everyone. Rather, everyone can. Not everyone does, and sometimes that is the cause of the occasional article you come across claiming this network is a ghost town or only for techy people. The tech nerds may have colonized this particular network, but if you go looking you'll see that many of the users on this service aren't any different from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Instagram. You have photography nuts, cooking enthusiasts, political arguments, video game chatter, parental advice (both wanted and unwanted), spiritual conversations, and just about anything else you can think of. You get the experience you create with Google+, which is a big part of what makes it a little different from the other networks. Where Facebook for most folks starts out as a list of people you know in person and Twitter starts out with topics that are relevant to your interests, Google+ starts out with people you know on the Internet. Folks you've emailed with, or people in your contacts and messenger lists. You start from there and go looking for people to have a conversation with, which means your social stream quickly becomes a river of things relevant to your interests.
There's a lot more to be said about this social network, and truth be told we've only just begun. We're going to spend the next couple of weeks breaking down what makes this network special and showing you how to get the most out of it. As you'll quickly see, this social network is both eerily similar and wildly different from the other tools out there to act as your social home page for the Internet.