Google+ is the latest entry in the ocean of social media. As a church leader, you need to know the potential this has for your leadership and church.
The interface has drawn a number of comparisons to Facebook, and while they look like they're from the same family, you'd never mistake them for twins.
Sure, you'll find a profile page where you can add photos, a bio, links and videos. And you can share your whims and thoughts just like Facebook. But the most unique aspect of Google+ is its Circles, which enable you to review updates from different groups, such as "Work," "Friends," "Family," "Foodies," "Fans of America's Got Talent," or whatever categories you'd like to develop for the people you know.
The amazing thing is that you develop Circles like, "Loves Rob Bell" or, "Would Vote for Palin in 2012," and keep those people as close or as far away from you depending on your preferences. But the whole concept of Circles becomes more helpful (and less tongue-in-cheek) when you think about the natural circles of involvement in your life, whether it's "Church Staff," "Small Group," or "Outreach Event."
Why is the Circles feature so important to you as a church leader? Because it streamlines who you communicate with and the way you do it. Instead of choosing between an e-mail, a blog post, or a tweet, you now have one place to communicate and an easy way to get the word out. The following has been observed:
- If you address something to a single person, it's like you've written an e-mail or note;
- If you address something to a Circle, such as church members, it's like you've written an open letter or newsletter;
- If you address something to a group of selected Circles, it's like you've tweeted;
- If you address something to Public, it's like a blog post everyone can enjoy.
It's important to note that Google+ isn't open to businesses or organizations like churches—at least not yet. But even through individual accounts, the Circles can be helpful as a staff or leadership tool, allowing you to communicate to your elders, staff, or volunteers in real time. The tool can be used to share everything from vision and goals to last-minute changes for an event.
Another plus of Google+ is the Hangout. This allows both chat and video features that give you instant access to up to ten people who also want to Hangout with you. Just make sure you're not in your pajamas or birthday suit when you click the video Hangout button or everyone will be in for a surprise.
Like the Circles, the tool allows instant connection with whoever else is on. I expect the Hangout to catch on among youth leaders as they build relationships with kids. Instead of Skype, Hangout provides the opportunity to allow a congregation to hear from up to ten different missionaries around the world during a service. Or a person can still be at work but pop in during the lunch hour virtually for a Bible study. For larger churches, it opens up a door for hangout times with leaders. The possibilities are endless.
Another big plus is the Sparks, which allows you to search for web content that catches your fancy. You can find news updates, management tips, leadership ideas—anything really—and then search and share what you find with any or all of your circles. This allows conversations to simmer throughout the day. Though still cumbersome to use, Sparks has the potential to allow you to keep up with ministry topics of interest throughout the day.
But the biggest plus of Google+ right now is the high level of engagement (last week, Google said more than 10 million people joined during its first three weeks). The new site is addictive, so people are scanning, reading, sharing, commenting, and creating a sense of energy and excitement. And those engaging are still largely primarily real people, not companies trying to sell you their latest flavor of product.
That means that if you can ask questions about anything on your mind—from a sermon topic to how to improve the scheduling of VBS volunteers—then you can watch answers, links, and feedback from around the world roll in.
For all its pluses, Google+ still has some minuses.
First, it doesn't play well with other social networks, like Twitter, Facebook, and Blog Feeds. Extensions are limited or non-existent. If you want to auto update your Google+ from Facebook or Twitter, you can't because it's not available. Modifications are on the way, but most of us wish they arrived yesterday.
Second, oopsies abound as we're all still figuring out the limits of Google+. Just the other day I received an inbox full of updates from a newbie who didn't realize that when he clicked the little box next to "Share" he was e-mailing everyone his updates. The day before that, we added photos and video to our profile page not realizing the entries would push through updates and appear like spam.
Third, the terrain is still so new it feels like a lot of people are missing from the conversation—especially women since nearly 75 percent of the users are male. In addition, a lot of Sparks are overused so the same content appears repeatedly. While some celebrate what they deem a viral success, the rest of us are just annoyed.
Lastly, I think the greatest strength of Google+ so far is the Circles, yet it could turn out to be its greatest weakness. Why? Circles have the potential to streamline conversations among like-minded people. That has tremendous potential to organize people around a common idea or cause. But it also has the potential to filter out the people who are different from us—those who would challenge us to be better than we could on our own.
Want an invite to Google+? We'd love to add you. Simply e-mail us at info(at)margaretfeinberg(dot)com and we'll send you one.
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