So you might have heard this week that there's this new social networking thing (*yawn*) called Google+. That's right, it's from Google. So it's gonna suck, right? I was skeptical at first, as were many others. After all, nobody roots for The Big Company who clones popular products made by smaller companies, and Google has had a well known poor track record in this space. But after a few days of using Google+, I'm a believer -- in its potential. Here's why.
Google+ is a chance to hit the rest button on social networking. For me, when I first started using Facebook it was mostly to catch up with old college classmates. Two big events happened later. Facebook was opened up to everybody, and Twitter showed up. When Facebook was opened up to everyone, I pretty much accepted friend requests from anyone I knew at all. I still didn't use Facebook that much. Meanwhile I really fell in love with Twitter when it showed up. On there I connected mostly with people in the same or related professions as me. Most of my tweets were around things that had to do with my job (programming, technology.)
Meanwhile on Facebook, I had more and more family members join. Suddenly Facebook became a great place to share family related things, especially pictures. Then I hooked up my Twitter account to Facebook. Now I could just post things to Twitter, and they would show up on Facebook. Then I would occasionally post pictures on Facebook as well. However, most of my tweets were geeky stuff. I did have some co-workers and college classmates who found such things interesting, but more and more most of my friends on Facebook (lots of family high school classmates) found this useless. Eventually I cut off the Twitter-Facebook connection.
My story here is certainly different from a lot of folks, but I imagine there are a lot of similarities too. Google+ seems to offer the possibility to do things over and get it right this time. The key is its grouping feature, Circles. You have to put people in Circles, so you are motivated to organize your friends. This is important. Facebook and Twitter have both had similar features for awhile, and they just aren't used. Twitter's lists aren't really comparable since you still send tweets to everyone. Facebook's groups are more comparable, so why aren't they used?
First and foremost, I don't think Facebook really wants anyone to use them. They have a pretty strong history of trying to decrease privacy on their network. Obviously Facebook benefits if everything posted on their network can be searched and viewed by others on Facebook. It seems like one of those features that they added because some users wanted it, but it did not benefit Facebook The Business. Within a couple of days of Google+'s debut, reports came out of a Facebook engineer easily hacking together the same interface to use with Facebook groups. So clearly it would have been pretty easy for Facebook to make groups easy for users to use to organize their friends and incorporate groups into content published on Facebook, but instead Facebook chose not to do this.
This raises the question of why the heck is Google+ doing it? If I had to guess, I doubt that Google really wants to do this either. However, this is one of many places where Google+ feels like something designed around the strengths and weaknesses of its competition, Facebook and Twitter. Privacy was an obvious weakness of Facebook and so Google+ takes advantage of that. It's the kind of thing you do to get market share, whereas Facebook has been doing just the opposite because they are trying to monetize existing users and content.
Privacy is not the only place where Google+ feels like a product that has been cleverly designed around its competition. In fact it reminds me a lot of embrace, extend, extinguish era Microsoft. I think they have realized that they don't necessarily have to come up with something that Facebook and Twitter don't do at all, they can just do a lot of the same things and do them a little better. Some other examples of this are viewing pictures and allowing rich markup in status updates. So they make a slightly better product, then they play their own monopoly card by putting the G+ bar on top of all Google pages, including search results and GMail...
Anyways, going back to privacy... The creation of Circles is only half the battle. The other half is picking which of your Circles to publish to. G+ has made this easy to do, and it is a feature that I want to use. However, I don't know if others will do the same. Right now it still seems like most posts that I read are public. This may change as more people start to use G+, but maybe not.
If it doesn't change, then G+ then seems like it will be more of a competitor to Twitter than to Facebook. It already has a lot of similarities, since it uses an asymmetric friendship model like Twitter. I definitely noticed a drop in tweets by those I follow on Twitter since G+ came out. If people don't use the privacy features, then the most it could become is a better Twitter. There have been other better Twitters before, so I don't know if that is good enough. Features like hangouts (group video chat) and huddles (group messaging) seem like they could appeal to Facebook users, but it's hard to say right now. For me, the kind of folks who I use Facebook to communicate with, but would not use Twitter to communicate with, have not even heard of Google+. Yet.