The latest addition to the social network ecosystem is Google+, and Google hopes to change the social networking game with this latest project's innovations. They may be unfamiliar to the standard Facebook crowd, so here's a look at how Google+ works, starting with how to sign up.
Signing up is incredibly easy, but there's a bit of a hurdle: Google+ is technically still in beta and hasn't been opened to the public yet. Don't despair, though, because current Google+ users (estimates indicate there are already tens of millions) can send you an invite. Ask around and odds are you'll find someone who will.
Once you get the invite, just sign in with your Google account (which includes Gmail, Picasa and YouTube accounts). Google+ will ask for some personal information but also leaves some options open. For instance, users are no longer required to declare their gender (in case that makes them uncomfortable or they have other reasons for leaving it ambiguous).
Other optional information includes occupation and place of employment (which can be useful for finding other people you work with) and a profile image.
Once you're set up, Google+ takes you to the home screen. This is where things will look familiar to Facebook users. The Stream displays posts, videos, links and photos from your contacts, and allows you to comment or "+1" them (Google's version of the "like" button).
It's possible to activate the Google Talk chat client in the Google+ interface, integrating Google+ even more with your main Google account. Along the top of the home page, in a black bar, are links to other Google apps, making it easy to switch to Gmail, Docs and Calendar.
Below that are the four main navigation buttons, (left to right) Home, Photos, Profile and Circles. The first three should be familiar to social network users, but Circles is one of the big features that may confuse new users.
In essence, Circles are ways of grouping contacts by association. The defaults are family, friends, acquaintances. When you add a contact (start by using the search bar or sending out invites to your friends), Google+ prompts you to select a Circle for that contact. It's possible to put one contact in multiple Circles and create your own Circles.
The main advantage of Circles is the ability to share things with a specific group of people instead of everyone. Don't want your parents or co-workers to see the photo you want to share with friends? That's easy; just select the appropriate Circle.
When posting items (in the box at the top of the Stream), Google+ automatically prompts you to choose their Circle destinations. It's possible to post them to all, some or one ― or even post an item to the public (making it searchable for others). It sounds complicated, but it's simple, the interface is intuitive and it vastly increases the options for sharing content how you want.
It's possible to include friends who don't have a Google+ account in your Circles. When you post something for the Circle, that friend will receive the post by email (instead of showing up in their Stream).
Another cool Circle feature is the ability to follow people you are interested in. There's a specific "Following" Circle that lets you identify Google+ users whose updates you want to see. They don't have to add you to their Circles, but anytime they post something publicly, it will show up in your Stream.
Another new feature introduced with Google+ is Sparks. They operate a little like an RSS feed, but for topics instead of specific sites. Put in terms and keywords you're interested in, and Google+ will pull in current articles, news stories and relevant sites and keep them updated. Sparks make it easy to keep track of your interests and find new things to share. Click on Sparks (left pane of home screen) and Google+ will suggest topics and let you put in your own, which will appear under the Sparks header. Clicking on these topics will bring up a list of current related items.
Hangouts and Huddles
Google+ includes an option for "Hangouts" (right pane of home screen), which are like group chats. Create a Hangout and specify who is welcome. Then, if those friends want to join your Hangout, they can jump in and chat via video. Groups in Hangouts can even watch YouTube videos or movies together, making it an interesting option for people who live apart.
Huddles work in much the same way but are text-only group chats, which are extremely useful for getting friends together or collaborating on a decision at work. Huddles can be organized with specific people or entire Circles.
All these features are available on the Google+ mobile apps, which are available for Android and forthcoming for Apple and BlackBerry. Unlike Facebook apps, which are notorious for poorly interfacing with users' Web accounts, the Google+ app seems to integrate perfectly with its Web counterpart, allowing smartphone owners to view their Stream, post photos and videos and modify their accounts.