Yesterday afternoon, I got an invitation to Google+, the search company's new social network, and I've been scratching my head ever since. Google+ is the product of an all-out effort within the company to make some kind of social-Web thing. I'm choosing those words carefully. In press reports—see Steven Levy's Wired account of the making of Google+ — people at Google shy away from the term "social network," and they bristle at the idea that Google+ is meant to be a "Facebook killer," or even that it's supposed to be a competitor to Facebook. What is it, then? Good question.
From what I can tell, Google+ is several different social products rolled into one, an amalgam that currently lacks much coherence or any compelling reason for participation. Among its many parts is a stream of your friends' updates—pretty much the same kind of thing you see on Twitter or Facebook. Then there's Huddle, a group chat system, which is like any number of other group chat systems online. There's also a snappy video chat feature, called Hangout. And, most important of all, there's Circles, which is a way to segregate your friends into discrete groups. For instance, you can have a circle of work friends, a circle of college buddies, a knitting circle, and a circle of jerks. (Who could resist?)
In my brief time with Google+, I noticed that some parts work well, that other parts don't, and that there are loads of features that are missing right now. (Among them, Google CEO Larry Page's profile. His page says, "Larry has not filled out their profile yet [sic].") Google would concede all of this; Google+ is currently in "field test" mode, which means that it's available to a very small number of people, and Google has offered no timeline on when it will open up for the public at large. Google will use feedback from the field test to improve Google+, so it would be pointless for me to criticize very specific features of the system.
Before it sweats the small stuff, however, Google has some bigger issues to address. First, I don't know whom the company thinks it's kidding; Google+ is obviously a direct competitor to Facebook. Given the large overlap in functionality, I can't imagine that many people will use Google+ and Facebook simultaneously. For most of us, it will be one or the other. Google+'s success, then, will rest in large part on Google's ability to convince people to ditch Facebook for the new site. For that, Google+ will have to offer some compelling view of social networking that's substantially different from what's available on Facebook. And that's where Google+ baffles me. What is so compelling about Google+ that I can't currently get on Facebook or Twitter? Or Gmail, for that matter? At the moment, I can't tell.
As best I can tell, the underlying philosophy of Google+ seems to be that, in the real world, people don't keep one all-encompassing "social network" of the kind that Facebook calls on us to build. Instead, we all have various different kinds of relationships with people in small clusters, and we apply distinct levels of importance and intimacy to each of these clusters. This is an attractive, intuitive theory, and it has been batted around at Google for a long time. It made its public debut a year ago, when Paul Adams, then a designer at Google, posted a clever slide-show presentation outlining what he identified as the major weakness of most online social networks: None of us has one group of friends. We all have many independent groups of friends.
Google took Paul Adams' idea and ran with it. (The feeling wasn't mutual—in January, Adams left Google to take a job at … Facebook. "Seeing Google+ in public is like bumping into an ex-girlfriend," he posted on Twitter yesterday.) The first thing you're called on to do when you first join Google+ is to create your own "circles" of friends. Google has created a pretty interface for you to do this—it populates the top half of the screen with names of people you might know, and the bottom half with several circles. (You're given a few default groups to start with—"Friends," "Family," "Acquaintances"—but you can rename these or create your own.) To put people in circles, you just drag and drop their names from the top half into any circle you like. Each person can be in multiple circles, and you can do different things with each circle—you can share your photos with your "Family" circle, and send all your political rantings to your "College Republicans" circle.
But circles are nothing new. Facebook has offered several ways to break your network into smaller chunks for many years now, and it has worked constantly to refine them. And you know what? Almost no one uses those features. Only 5 percent of Facebookers keep "Lists," Facebook's first attempt for people to categorize their friends. Recognizing that "Lists" weren't great, last year the site unveiled a new way to manage your friends, called "Groups." I was optimistic that "Groups" would help to compartmentalize Facebook, but from what I can tell, few people use that feature, either.
You could argue that Facebook's failure to do this well doesn't augur anything for Google+. After all, Facebook's "Lists" feature is clunky to use—you've got to be constantly on guard about adding people to the correct list, and as your network grows and your relationships change, you have to do a lot of work to rearrange people. Facebook's "Groups," which lets other people manage your circles through rote tagging, is somewhat easier to use, but still apparently too much work for most people. If Google+ lets you manage these groups more easily, wouldn't it stand a good chance against Facebook?
I'm not sure. Google's "Circles" is more graphically entertaining than Facebook's "Lists." When you add someone to a circle, an animated +1 flies across the page, as if you've just got a Fire Flower in Super Mario Bros. But it is not intuitively easier to use. You've still got to manually corral your social network, and this can take a lot of time—especially because the initial suggestions in Google+ are populated by your Gmail contacts group, which means that there are hundreds of people to choose from (many of them duplicates). There's always the possibility that Google will make this process easier by adding some of its legendary algorithmic magic, using applied social-network theory to guess who belongs in your work circle, in your college circle, and in your personal ninth circle of hell. Perhaps if it does this well enough, people will see this as enough of a reason to share stuff on Google+ rather than Facebook.
I wonder, though, whether the whole theory of "circles" is misguided. It's very possible that we're all less obsessed with compartmentalizing our relationships than Google imagines. It's probably true that, as Paul Adams says, we keep multiple circles of acquaintances in real life. But it doesn't necessarily follow that people want to take the time to reflect that behavior online. After all, in the real world, managing your circles of friends is usually an implicit thing—you hang out with your school friends when you're at school, you hang out with your New York friends when you're in New York, you talk to your coworkers when you're at work. Unless you're planning your wedding seating chart, you don't usually go around categorizing and grading groups of friends, adding some people in and keeping other people out. And take my word for it: After you do it for your wedding, you'll never want to do it again.
There are three basic ways to share stuff online these days: You can do so publicly, for everyone to see; semi-publicly, for only your "friends" to see; and privately, for only designated people to see. Each of these modes is well-served by existing technologies: Twitter lets you share stuff with the public at large. Facebook lets you share stuff with your friends. And for private sharing, there's e-mail, texting, IM, Google Docs, the phone, and, from what I've been told, something known as "face-to-face conversation."
There are certainly people who want to control their networks at a much more granular level, and for those people, tools like "circles" or Facebook's lists come in handy. But the prevailing behavior on Facebook suggests that those features will attract only a minority. Most people are OK with one giant, chaotic circle, and spending a lot of time worrying about the consequences of sharing your stuff there is totally square.