I attended my first Google+ Event this week. It had no physical venue, taking place exclusively on Google+ and YouTube. The New York Times hosted the event. In the lead-up to the 2012 Olympics, the Times has been hosting Google+ Hangouts with Olympians. I came across the Hangouts while visiting the Times’ London 2012 Olympics page.
The Hangout was hosted by Ken Belson, a sports reporter from the New York Times and featured Shalane Flanagan (a U.S. marathon runner), Mary Wittenberg, (President of New York Road Runners) and Bob Sherman (a recreational runner, who’s completed 29 consecutive NYC Marathons).
I’d like to share my initial impressions of Google+ Events and Hangouts.
What I Liked
As far as streaming technology goes, the Google+ Hangout experience (which broadcast via an embedded YouTube viewer) was quite good. The video picture was sharp and crisp. Google+ Hangouts auto-detect who’s speaking and switches the focus to that person.
These transitions worked so well that it reminded me of watching television (where there’s a human being controlling those switching decisions). As the host, Belson did a fine job of detecting ambient noise and asking whether a participant wanted to speak. He’d pause to ask, “did you want to jump in?”
Experimentation and Exploration
I commend the New York Times for exploring and experimenting with emerging technology. The Times has always been a primary news source for me, but the experience has revolved around articles, with occasional on-demand videos.
A live event brings an entirely new experience for Times’ readers. First, the event allows Times’ columnists (e.g. Ken Belson) to connect more closely to their readers. Second, readers can see and hear from personalities that otherwise would not have been possible (e.g. an Olympic athlete).
The use of emerging technology comes with some risk. For instance, at one point in the Hangout, Ms. Flanagan’s image froze, and then her presence dropped off completely. She re-joined a few minutes later and continued to field questions.
To me, that was completely fine. It’s a learning experience. The Times learned from this and we’ll all learn and evolve – I’m sure it was the same with television broadcasts in the early days. Let’s keep experimenting and exploring.
What I’d Like to See
The Times has done a great job of connecting U.S. Olympic athletes to its readers. And to start, it’s not surprising that they sought a controlled environment, with a host (Belson) who steered the conversation among the three guests.
As media outlets continue to use online (and social!) broadcasting tools, I’d like to see them take more advantage of the interactive and engagement capabilities that these platforms provide.
Stronger Connection from Audience to Guests
Users could post questions (for Ms. Flanagan) within the Google+ Events page and I noticed that a number of good questions had been submitted prior to the Hangout. In addition, during the Hangout, I noticed a number of comments and questions posted.
While Belson did pose a user-submitted question to Flanagan, it was from “a reader,” rather than a question posted within the activity stream. In the future, I’d love to see more questions selected directly from the social platform, with guests actively reviewing and commenting on thoughts posted by viewers.
A More Active Role for Audience Members
I’m sure the Google+ Team is busy at work on product features to support a more complete Google+ Events and Hangout experience. Beyond the existing commenting system, I’d like to see more tools for users to provide feedback and to collaborate with one another.
In addition, audience members should have the opportunity to help steer the direction of the conversation. How about integrating Google Moderator to allow audience members to read and vote on the submitted questions?
While I concluded my first Google+ Event wanting a bit more (interactivity-wise), I commend the Times for what they’ve done. There’s something about a Hangout (compared to a TV interview, for instance) that puts you closer to an Olympic athlete. You hear about their diet and their training regimen, all with the intimacy of seeing them from their laptop’s webcam.
I look forward to subsequent Hangouts. And to Shalane Flanagan, best of luck in London!