The problem with Google+

There’s a dilemma inherent in using any new social network in a market already saturated with social networks.  Unless all existing social networks are integrated into some massive conglomerate, there is no way to effectively replace one with another one. 

For example, much as I hate Facebook, I still go there.  Why?  Because I have friends and family who use it.  They aren’t going to not use it.  I could try to drag them over to another network, but to what end?  It’s not likely I will be able to convince everyone to make the switch.  This forces me to just suck it up and use the system, even though I don’t want to and don’t even like it all that much.

Now that the Great Wall of Google+ has been torn down, and Apps users can finally use it, I find that I want to use Google+.  I have no idea why this is.  Maybe it’s just the novelty, the new-social-network smell.  Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been waiting so long and I’m going to make use of it, dammit.  Maybe it’s the fact that the interface hasn’t (yet) been crapped up by all sorts of stuff I don’t want (live updating stream locked in the sidebar atop a new, locked-in friends list? No and no, thank you).  It could also be because it has insidiously inserted itself into everything I do; even though I don’t use Gmail, I can’t get away from the dark gray plusbar at the top of Google Reader or the ubiquitous +1 icons in search results.  Whatever the reasons, I feel the compulsion to go back, which leaves me with a problem.

Two problems actually.

Three problems, if truth be told.

Those problems being: Facebook, Google+ and Diaspora*.  They all do the same thing in more or less the same way.  I can pretty much knock Diaspora* off the list because – though it was a wonderful experiment in openness and creating a Facebook alternative that could be hosted by anyone (sort of) anywhere (that supports Ruby) – the long delay before the alpha was ready for the public gave Google more than enough time to get all the things right that Facebook got wrong (which more or less makes Diaspora* and Google+ identical – acquisition?).  That still leaves two problems: Google+ vs. Facebook.  I’d love to give up Facebook for good, but that’s not going to happen without a mass Facebook exodus (which is also not going to happen).  Therefore I find myself bouncing between two social networks which is absolutely ridiculous (mostly because in neither case is there anything particularly new and/or interesting happening – my Google+ stream being too new and fresh, not yet overrun by stuff I don’t care about – and Facebook being, well, Facebook).

As good as Google+ may be, it’s never going to beat Facebook (at least, not in the sense that it will overtake and replace Facebook — the way Facebook did to MySpace).  Facebook isn’t going anywhere.  Since Google is also not going anywhere, the best they could do would be to find some way to merge the two.  Not necessarily by buying Facebook or doing a direct conglomerate – I’m thinking more along the lines of an RSS feed, an alternative stream, and a way to use Google+ as a Facebook client.  It’s dangerous territory.  It would be easy to just import all the same data that sent us (well, me) running from Facebook with a myriad of updates about virtual farms being maintained by people I barely knew in high school and former co-workers.  Google+ is already the cool kids hangout; to maintain this, they’d need some way of allowing you to subscribe to Facebook feeds for people you want to follow, but not a direct import of all your Facebook friends.  Because, let’s face it, if there’s any reason we’d give up Facebook it’s because of post-Friending remorse – suddenly being sorry that you clicked Accept on that friend request from someone you hadn’t seen or heard from in 15 years. 

Being able to subscribe to Facebook friends via Google+ would also allow us to be much better stalkers, hiding behind yet another layer of anonymity.  And really, that’s what social networks are really about, isn’t it?  Instead of “friend requests” Facebook should just call it like it is.  Suzie has requested to be a voyeur.  Do you accept her voyeurism request?  If we’re going to use the internet to live vicariously through the lives of people we never see IRL, we should at least be honest about it. 

Oh, right, I was talking about Google+…The best part of Google+ is being able to say +1 to something in a totally non-ironic way.  #win.

Update: Okay, so if you use this Chrome extension, you can get your Facebook feed (and Twitter feed, if you really wanted) in your Google stream. Not a perfect solution, exactly, but it’s more or less what I was asking for so problem solved. For now.

VibeDeck: First Impressions

VibeDeck is a new site for musicians to sell their music that Geoff pointed out to me.  They vow to be free, totally free, without ever taking a cut of your sales.  They also swear to be completely ad free.  They haven’t quite figured out how to make money with all of those vows, but in the meantime, it’s a great place for musicians to set up shop and it integrates into SoundCloud and Facebook.  I thought I’d check it out and see how it compares against other, similar sites.

Pros: Looks like you can completely customize the design — possibly even have a unique design for each album.  Might be cool (in the case of the latter, if I’m right).  Connects easily to SoundCloud and Facebook.  Free.  New.  Nice interface.  Easy to set up a good-looking site to sell your music with zero design experience.

Cons: SoundCloud integration is sort of worthless without a paid account.  It goes off of your sets on SoundCloud (which you’re limited to 1 with a free account), so that linkage only goes so far.  Doesn’t look like you can upload other material (PDFs, bonus tracks) or sell physical products (actual disks, other bonus material like stickers, t-shirts) the way you can on Bandcamp.

Assessment: Good tool for starting-out musicians with no plans on physical distribution.  Possibly even better for artists who have a pro account on SoundCloud.  Personally, I’m happy with Bandcamp, and this is offering a lot of the same things Bandcamp does without a lot of the bonus perks that Bandcamp has (probably because Bandcamp has been around for a couple of years).  The Facebook stuff might be cool, but there’s so many different artist page things for Facebook that that’s almost not even worth mentioning — you can pretty much find something that you can use if you want to create a custom artist page on Facebook, that’s not really a problem.  Without some added features (adding your music to Soundscan, iTunes, etc.), there isn’t a compelling reason for an established musician (who already has accounts on other sites like ReverbNation or Bandcamp that already let you sell your music) to use VibeDeck, but it might be a good next step for someone who’s got an account on Alonetone and is looking for the next step up.

Free Facebook Fan Box Widget PSD Template

As designers, we often find ourselves spending exorbitant amounts of time working on fake content.  It’s hard to describe something to some people without being able to show it to them.  Facebook fan page widgets are something you see everywhere, and yet, how do you incorporate them into a mockup without using someone else’s box or resizing it to fit into dimensions that fit your new design but aren’t the original widget’s proportions?  I have found myself in this position many times and, yesterday, set out to find a PSD solution.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.  There are a couple really good Facebook UI templates (like this one from Fuel Your Creativity which has you covered on everything you need for an actual fan page, or this one that was featured on Smashing Magazine and includes everything else, from pop up messages to chat boxes to “loading” boxes), but nothing — nothing — for fan boxes.  This was a bit surprising considering the depth and detail of what was offered in those links above, but changing my query around got me no closer to a solution for what I was looking for.

So, I decided to make my own.

This Facebook Fan Box widget is fully layered and editable, down to the dividers inside the box.  The background is a shape with a stroke applied to reproduce the border around the Facebook widget’s iframe.  The size of the widget is 237 x 300 — which is what I generally use when I add fan boxes to sites I’m working on because it gives enough room to have an equal amount of padding on both sides around four columns of user photos.  The photos themselves are generic Facebook avatars that can be swapped with any image you want (or not).  All the text is editable and in Lucida Sans (which can be substituted with Lucida Grande for Mac-users).

This is version 1.0 of this PSD template, designed specifically for our own typical needs when we are designing mockups for clients.  It only includes the face-box-style fan box, but leave your comments below, and we might consider updating the template to accomodate different sizes or fanbox styles.

Download Facebook Fan Box Widget PSD Template 2.05MB
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RockMelt isn’t all that hot

I somehow missed the hype machine for the new social browser, RockMelt.  So, when @LastPass tweeted that it worked with RockMelt, my ears perked up.  RockMelt? WTF is that?

RockMelt is a new kind of browser, or so the introductory video told me, one that combines your social web with your browsing experience.  We’ve met such browsers before; Flock was supposed to make your browsing experience easier and more social, too and everybody’s switched browsers to Flock now, right?  Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Still, I was interested in how the sidebars interacted dynamically with what you were looking at.  And I’m always fancy-new-gadgets-yay, so I signed up for the beta last night.  Aaaand I got my invite this morning.

Let me get one thing out there: I’m not attached at the hip to Facebook.  In fact, generally, I could care less.  The only reason I go there at all is because I have so many people I actually know there with whom I probably would never interact with otherwise.  People I went to college or high school or worked with who I actually like.  But I’ve got more important things to do with my time than wait for the latest update from someone’s FarmVille game, let alone play it myself.  On the other hand, I’m active on Twitter.  I manage 3 separate accounts (though one is mostly on autopilot) and I, at least occasionally, have the sorts of 140-character conversations that people have on Twitter.  A look at my about page will tell you I’m also connected to a lot of other sites, too, some of which I use daily (like Glue and Empire Avenue), some of which I check in maybe once a month or so (like Goodreads), and some of which I rarely, if ever, visit (like Foursquare).  At the same time, I’ve turned off all pop-up notifications from everything because I found, ultimately, that it’s incredibly distracting and I can get a lot more work done when I don’t have a little message popping up in the corner of my screen every 5 minutes.

From the video preview, I could tell that RockMelt was using WebKit.  Just glancing at the tabs told me that, which look exactly like Chrome‘s tabs (really? you couldn’t do something different?).  After downloading the beta and running the install, it told me that, in order to import my settings from Chrome, I needed to close it first.  So I did.  It asked me to log into Facebook.  So I did.  Then it gave me a window that looked exactly like Chrome, but with two sidebars.  The one on the left showing my Facebook contacts, and the one on the right showing my updates from Facebook and (after I logged in) Twitter.  Here’s the thing about Facebook: you know how I just said that I actually use it to keep in touch with people I like?  Well, with a few exceptions, I can generally count those people on one hand.  So, seeing a list of all my online Facebook contacts really doesn’t help me that much.  Now, you can “favorite” your contacts, and switch over to list your favorites rather than your online contacts, but when my favorites (at least in terms of chatting online) number exactly two, that’s not that helpful, really.  What would be better is if it integrated into more social networks.  Anyone hear of Google?  It wouldn’t be hard to integrate a Google Chat into the browser that also brought up the same sorts of information and sharing opportunities you get from the Facebook integration.  And since I (and the rest of the known universe) use Google on a daily basis, this would be much more helpful than my Facebook contacts.  And what about other, similar networks that use an open standard, like Identi.ca and Diaspora?  Having this sort of feature embedded in your browser really needs to have the ability to tune it to your own usage with your own networks, rather than just assuming everybody is using — and wants to integrate into their regular browsing experience — Facebook.

On the right side, as I said, there’s updates from Facebook and Twitter.  What’s actually interesting here, though, is that if you’re on a site that has an RSS feed, a little green button lights up that tells you that you can add that to your sidebar and get notifications from that site.  With all the hub-bub about how RSS is dead (hint: it’s not), this is a great way of integrating RSS into your daily browsing experience in a way that is easy for the non-geeks to pick up on intuitively.  This would be especially useful for adding news sites and getting a list of the latest headlines, or just adding your favorite blogs and using it like an RSS reader.

Beyond that, though, it’s really just Chrome that’s been taught a few cool tricks.  Tricks that, I’m sure, could easily have been developed as standalone extensions within Chrome rather than building an entirely new browser for them.  (Of course, when I re-opened Chrome after RockMelt’s “import”, I was appalled to see that all of my tabs were gone and it was displaying some web page on my hard drive that didn’t exist.  Luckily, although my history was funky and all my Bookmarks were showing up as recently opened pages, I was able to scroll through my history and find most of my previously-open tabs.)  If I had the choice, I’d take the RSS integration and ditch everything else.  That said, I’m not really the target market for this browser.  I’m a geek and I like doing things myself and in my own way.  The billions of users of Facebook that make up the majority would probably be excited to have a way to merge Facebook into the rest of the web.  I’m just not one of those people.  I can see how there could be quite a market for this browser, but only if said market is using the web in exactly the way they intended it to be used.  This has always been the downfall of applications that try to blend all your social networks into one app: it’s great in theory, but in practice, they’re always lacking at least one network (if not multiple) which makes it less appealing to use it as an all-in-one.  In my opinion, the current model of browser development is a good one: the browser is for browsing web sites, any other features can be added through plugins or extensions.  Coding extra features like social network integration into the browser core only makes it heavier, potentially slower, and ends up limiting the user’s browsing experience rather than adding to it.  On the other hand, browser developers should build easy ways to keep up on news feeds and blog updates in an intuitive and visual way, which is something that — I’m not the first to say — has been lacking in modern web browsers.

In conclusion, RockMelt is great if you’re already glued to Facebook, and less so if you’re not.  If that does describe you and you want to check it out, let me know — I have some invites available I can send your way.

"It’s sad that I have more friends on Twitter who can craft a complete sentence in fewer than 140…"

“It’s sad that I have more friends on Twitter who can craft a complete sentence in fewer than 140 characters while my news feed on Facebook is filled with trivial updates from people who don’t understand how to use a period properly, can’t figure out what to do with an uppercase letter, and often lack the ability to form a complete thought.”

Justin Tadlock (@justintadlock), On English: Twitter vs. Facebook