Way back in the dark ages of 2004, I joined Facebook. At the time, the idea of a “social network” was foreign to most people, though the advantages it gave you, especially in the college setting, were immediately apparently. At the time, you could “Friend” someone, post on their “Wall,” “Poke” them, share pictures, and basically just see what everyone was up to. Initially, you could only do this if you were at a college that was supported by the network, but it expanded to anyone over the age of 13 in September 2006.
It was all downhill from there, as far as I’m concerned.
Don’t get me wrong, I still use Facebook all the time…and likely more than any healthy, rational person should. It’s still very addictive, it’s still the network where most of my friends congregate, and it lets me post my inane political rantings where I can annoy as many people as possible. It’s just that there’s all this extra stuff that clutters up the whole thing. I feel like I constantly hear people complain about Facebook, yet they still use it because they have no alternative to what it does best: posts, links and pictures. Sure, there are alternatives, but few that allow you to look up a person and see everything they have posted in a semi-organized manner that doesn’t require you scrolling down an endless feed of information.
In recent years, I have delved into Twitter and LinkedIn, two other social networks that serve vastly different audiences. My LinkedIn profile is, by far, the least used as its primary purpose is to serve as a sort of online resume. I think it tends to be more useful in the business community than it is elsewhere, but it’s something I have so I can check out other people’s profiles. My Twitter feed has gotten more use recently, but I still mostly use Twitter to “follow” celebrities, blogs, and a few select friends that actually use it. Again, while LinkedIn is good for your personal information, Twitter is good for status updates. Neither is particularly good about posting pictures and videos. Facebook does a reasonable job of tying all those together, but then you also get the extra problem of FarmVille updates in your News Feed.
This week marked Google’s (second) entry into the social networking sphere in the form of Google+. Yet another social network to join. Google is making the smart decision to really tie together their web presence with Android, seamlessly linking communication between these disparate entities as best as they can. Google+ involves a “Stream” news feed (just like your Facebook news feed), “Sparks” that let you follow particular interests, and “Huddles” and “Hangouts,” text-based and video-based chat systems, respectively.
The primary innovation, in my mind, is the idea of “Circles.” This is the thing that Twitter and Facebook don’t really do at all, let alone well. Circles allow you to group your Friends together in subgroups that you can then easily post to. So, for example, I tend to post political videos and articles on my Facebook wall. Everyone sees those unless they have removed my updates from their wall. In Google+, I can specifically designate who gets those posts by putting them in a Circle. You can still send posts to everyone’s news feeds, but at least there’s a mechanism for limiting who your comments go to.
Google has used various humorous examples to describe Circles, including having Circles specifically for co-workers and not your boss, or your family, but not your in-laws. It is also this feature that many analysts and journalists are most excited about. While Circles may be innovative, the other trappings of Google+ aren’t all that revolutionary, yet the system does a good job at replicating the Facebook experience without the stuff you hate about Facebook. From Ezra Klein:
That’s where I could imagine Google+ coming in. It’s not that any of its features are so revolutionary. It’s not that it’s better at doing social networking than Facebook. It’s that it’s an opportunity to start over, to build your social network with years of Facebook experience in mind, rather than having to face the accretion of mistakes and miscalculations you made over almost a decade of trial-and-error with a new technology. It’s not Facebook’s fault that “what it means” to have a Facebook account has changed four or five times over the last few years, even as most of us have only had one profile over that period. But it is an opportunity for Google.
The Mobile App, which integrates a variety of functions from within Android, is also pretty slick and much faster than the Facebook app. For a walkthrough of the Mobile App, you can check out various sources, including ArsTechnica. To me, the most interesting function is the “Nearby Stream.” Think of this as your regular “Stream,” or Facebook News Feed, but this one pulls down your GPS location and gives you the posts of random people near you. It may not be the most useful feature all the time, but I can imagine going to a baseball game and getting fan reactions from random people in the crowd to what’s going on, all through my phone. Other than that, it’s an app that’s very similar to Facebook’s, without all the “clutter.”
As Klein wrote in his article, Google+ is a “cleaner” way to have a social network, one that isn’t cluttered by 7 years of Applications, Groups, Likes and Pokes. Whether it will gain any traction remains to be seen, but this is the first full-on assault by Google on Facebook, and Google+ seems like a pretty good attempt and wrestling control of The Social Network from the folks that made history with the concept.
We’ll see how it does. I’ll certainly give it a go. While there are some good ideas in there, it seems almost too much like Facebook to really pull people away. People hopped on Twitter because it did one thing that Facebook does, but did it better (News Feed…). In that respect, you could justify having both accounts because you used each one for different purposes. Google+ really serves the same purpose as Facebook. So in that respect, I’m not sure it presents much of an attractive alternative.
But then again, I use Google products on a daily basis, and so to millions of other people. I bet they’re all willing to give it a try. If the flood of invites rolling out isn’t indicative of their curiosity, I don’t know what is.