It’s no secret by now that I’ve been in love with Google+ (Google Plus) since I gained admittance on the third day of its existence. Sure it’s not perfect, and there are a number of improvements and features I’d like to see, but it’s taken off for me like no other social network I’ve participated in. (Follow author Mark Traphagen on Google+)

Still, I’ve seen a number of my friends get in to Google+, have a quick look around, and =say, “Meh,” or “This is too complicated,” or “none of my friends are here,” and then  just stop using it after one or two posts and/or interactions.

I really don’t think Google+ is all that hard to “get,” but I realize that any new social network can seem intimidating at first. In this particular case, it’s a good demonstration that those who are saying Google+ is “just a Facebook copy” are wrong. While it might look that way at first glance, Google+ has some significant differences from Facebook that may not be obvious to the new user right away.

This past weekend I crowd-sourced to those in my Google+ circles the following question: “What do you wish you knew when you first signed on to Google+,” or put another way, “What things should a newbie to Google+ know so they don’t freak out and run away?” I wasn’t looking for a collection of “tips and tricks” (there are plenty of those out there, and you can search for them on Google+), but rather for the major areas of potential misunderstanding that might keep a new user from enjoying and benefiting from Google+.

Here, in no particular order, is what we came up with:

  • Try to leave behind your Facebook and Twitter mentalities (while keeping in mind that some things you learned in using those services will be helpful in Google+). Unlike Facebook, you can follow (in Google+ “circle”) people without them following you, and vice versa. But unlike Twitter, you can fine tune which groups (circles) will see any given post.
  • If your stream is too quiet, go find new people to follow. Many new Google+ users get discouraged early because their friends from other social networks haven’t shown up yet, or are too quiet. But Google+ gives you the opportunity to go out and find new, interesting people, without the Facebook limitation of requiring them to friend you back. Use Google+’s internal search to look for people posting about your topics.  If you see someone make an interesting post or comment in your stream, click their name to go to their profile. Look at their “About” and “Posts” to see if they will sustain your interest, then use the “Add to Circles” button to follow them. Another resource for finding interesting people to follow is Find People on Plus. Search by topics you’re interested in and that service will find plussers who have those terms in their Google+ profile.
  • Don’t be intimidated by Circles. Experiment! Fiddle! Retune! The most important thing to know about Circles (Google+’s way of organizing the people you follow) is no one else can see your circles. That means you are free to set them up any way you like (and name them as devilishly as you want) without fear of anyone being offended. The drag and drop interface makes it easy to reshuffle your circles, so don’t feel locked in to your original setup. (If you really want to geek out on Google+’s asymmetric sharing paradigm, watch this Visual Guide to Circles in Google+ slideshow.)
  • Circles are for both posting and reading. Keep this in mind when setting up circles. You can use circles to target to whom you want your posts to go (yes to my best friends, no to my boss), but also use them to filter your stream, especially once you have circled a lot of people and the noise builds up. You may want to build both posting and reading circles, since you can put people in more than one.
  • Don’t freak when people you don’t know circle you. It’s a good thing! Again, this is part of leaving your Facebook mentality behind. Facebook relationships are symmetrical. I only follow you if you follow me, and vice versa. Circling on Google+ is more like following on Twitter…but better (I’ll explain). Similar to Twitter, anyone can follow you by placing you in one or more of their circles. Don’t freak when this happens. Take it as a compliment; you were interesting enough for a stranger to want to read more of what you say! Now here’s where circles are different from Twitter follows, and why you shouldn’t worry about being circled by strangers: Like Twitter, you don’t have to follow back (i.e., add them to one of your circles), but unlike Twitter, if you don’t circle them back, they don’t see anything you post to your circles (i.e. not to “Public”). So with Google+ it’s very easy to keep more private posts away from strangers even if they are following you. Just don’t post them to public.
  • Get to know the default circles. Right out of the box Google+ gives you several circles you can use when posting or sharing (and one just for reading). Understanding the subtle differences between these is a little challenging at first, but crucial. (Good news: after you’ve inserted one of these into the “add more people” box, just hover your mouse over it and a tooltip will appear with a quick definition.)
    • Public: Posts to anyone who has added you to their circles, and is also visible on your profile Posts page and to anyone on the Internet (either by them receiving a link to the post or finding it in a web search). You should be aware that posting to Public does not mean everyone who has circled you sees the post in their Stream, only those you’ve also added to a circle (i.e., you follow each other). Everyone else who has circled you (but you haven’t circled back) will get the post in their Incoming feed (see below).
    • Extended circles: Posts to anyone you’ve circled, plus to people they’ve circled (so friends, and friends of friends). Same rule applies as in Public above, though: if they’ve circled you it will appear in their Stream (and the stream of whichever circle(s) they’ve added you to); if they haven’t circled you, it goes to Incoming.
    • Your circles: Just like the name implies, these posts go to anyone you’ve added to a circle. This could also be called All my circles or The one circle to rule them all. These posts are not public (unless you add Public in also) and thus will not appear on your profile or in Google search for anyone not in your circles. (Pro Tip: You can customize which circles appear in “Your Circles” in your settings. It’s truly Your Circles.).
Above all, be patient and have fun! It’s a whole new world to explore.
What “I wish I had known _____ when I first started in Google+” tip would you add to my list?
(Thanks to Andrew Vogel, Daniel Stoddart, Randall Short, Alastair Roberts, Lee Coursey, Brandon Withrow, and Dan Routier for ideas in comments on Google+ that contributed to this post.)
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