Social networking is a notoriously difficult world to break into. Twitter and Facebook, of course, sit at the top of the pile, but even they begin to feel the pressure when they roll out a change, however slight. Users of the sites emphatically do not like change, sometimes facing a public backlash for implementing new features.
Imagine, then, the challenges faced in bringing an entirely new entry into the mix.
As a result of these challenges, Google found itself in an unfamiliar position- that of the underdog- with its Google+ launch last summer. That position, and the resulting mindset, seems to have served them well. Google+ is an extremely useful product, but how does it stack up to Facebook or Twitter?
To answer that question, we must understand Google's approach to social. In previous iterations of its social attempts (think Google Buzz), the search giant half-heartedly stepped into the ring with the big boys of social. The resulting products felt like an afterthought. With Google+, Google is all-in. They've supplied the manpower, the passion, the talent needed to build not just a challenger, but a uniquely powerful product.
The Google+ experience is an attempt to give a nucleus to the entire Google ecosystem. Quite famously, the company has many hands in many pots. A significant amount of their products fail. When something is a success, however, it is a resounding one. Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, and (of course) search are just a few examples of the products which, when given the proper resources, stand head and shoulders above all competitors as vastly superior products. The problem, as newly crowned CEO Larry Page saw it, was a distinct disconnect between all of these successful products. Google+ is less a social network, and more an attempt to bring a cohesive and seamless Google experience to the web.
Take the +1 button. Initially, the launch of the button was seen as a direct competitor to Facebook's 'like' button. A closer look, though, reveals that Google saw the social revolution as a lasting one, and the +1 button as a way to incorporate that world into its score business- the search that has become synonymous with the web itself.
The idea is that, as you +1 sites around the web, your network gains access to your insights when they search the web. If you +1'd a hotel in Miami on your last vacation, your friends will see your recommendation when they search for Miami hotels.
Ezra Klein, a political journalist for the Washington Post, outlines the more personal benefits of the button:
As I understand it, the theoretical innovation in G+'s +1 search is that
it gives you access to items your network has +1'd. What I've found it most useful for is giving me access to items I've +1'd. So when I find
an article, or post, or fact, or paper, that I think is really useful,
and that I could imagine needing in the future, I +1 it. And then it's
far easier to find it in subsequent searches. My +1s are like
breadcrumbs I can scatter across the internet to help me retrace my
tracks back to places I've previously been and would like to go to
again. It's made +1ing things far more useful for me, it's made Google's
search more helpful, and it's made my memory a little less difficult to navigate.
Other superior Google products have also been integrated into the G+ experience: Events (Google Calendar), Local (Google Maps), Photos (Picasa- which, though its superiority to other products is questionable, has become the haven for the photography community though G+). Google Hangouts has changed the videochat game. Musicians are holding live sessions on Hangouts, a new TBS show has embraced the format as a way to connect with potential fans. Even the POTUS got in on the action. Nothing else like Hangouts exists, and now its benefits are multi-faceted, with YouTube and Google Docs integration.
One looming question remains, though: the philosophical basis for the existence of G+ may be admirable, but how does the experience stack up? No matter how good the idea or intentions, a product is only useful if it provides an experience smooth enough to convince people like you and me to actually use it.
Let's start with the concept of Circles, the fundamental difference in the way with which Google handles your contacts. The problem of allowing your grandmother or your employer to see pictures of your family vacation, or the party you attended last week was, and is, a notorious problem for Facebook, and it's taken a fair share of criticism for the black and white approach to relationships. Someone is either a friend, or they're not. If they are, they see everything. Circles is an attempt to replicate the nuance of real human relationships in the digital sphere. Your grandmother will only see those embarrassing photos if you share it with the Family circle you've placed her in. The nuance goes a step further, too: friends can be placed in multiple circles, which is an important feature. For example, I have a circle for the town in which I live, and also a Theater circle for friends interested in the local acting scene. Many friends are in both circles, so when I share something of local interest, they'll see it, and when I share something related to theater, they'll see that, too, while those who may not be interested in such things will not. I'm a bit of a Linux geek, and I know my mother would not be interested in the latest update to Ubuntu's Unity desktop- so I don't share these tidbits with her. There are plenty who would be interested, though, so sharing liberally with my Linux circle is not a problem.
Now, let's take the Circles concept a bit further. The Circles system allows for different types of communication depending on the circumstance. If I want to send a private message, I simply tag the intended recipient and no one else, effectively sending an email. Sharing with a certain circle becomes a sort of forum post. Making a post public can be likened to a blog post. Circles alone has the potential to pave the way for a new, more nuanced form of communicating on the web.
It has been said that, while Facebook is your small hometown, Google+ is the bustling city. Here, the parallels with Twitter begin to appear. You need not know someone personally to follow their updates. If you find someone interesting, add them to a circle. This can be a great way of keeping up with your interests. I've cultivated a great circle of web designers, one for actors, one for sports, even one for news. G+ allows its users to browse only one circle at a time. So, if I want to see only what's going on in the world of web design, I can read my web design circle's updates. If I want to catch up on the news, I can do so. If I want to see what my family's been up to, I can do that, too, without sifting through a river of updates irrelevant to what I want to see right now.
The search function inside of G+ is another obvious Twitter parallel. It's an interesting and easy way to keep up with any goings-on in real-time, and also provides, like Twitter, a trending topics overview to keep an eye on what's being talked about on the web.
With all these features more closely mirroring the different ways in which we interact offline, G+ can become a wonderfully personal experience. To get to that point, though, it requires a bit of a thoughtful approach. After all, you have to find some of these wonderfully interesting people to add them to your circles in the first place. Some take a cautious approach, adding people who pop up in interactions with others, slowly adding to their circles. Some add a huge amount of people right off the bat, then prune to their heart's desire. It's the latter approach that I've recently taken. Since G+ allows its users to share entire circles of people, it's easy to add huge swaths of users with one fell swoop. I used this Google Doc to add to my circles, and I've been slowly deleting those with whom I share no interests. The end result is becoming a wonderful group of thoughtful people I'm glad to interact with. I've 'met' some great writers and designers with this approach. It's worth mentioning that interaction seems to be a core of the experience. In cross-posting many updates to G+ and to Twitter, I find I get much more interaction on G+. It seems much more adept at sparking conversations than its counterparts.
Facebook can be valuable to keep up with old high school friends. Twitter is proving itself to be invaluable in many ways. Both services have done extremely well in providing value to its user base. Google+ is both of these services, and it is all, and it is none. It is not another social network. It is the central nervous system of the most innovative company on the web, and if you haven't taken a dip in the pool lately, it's time to dive in.