First of all, I’m a Google guy. In the coming tech war, when Linux Nerds face off against Apple Zombies and Facebook Fiends, I’ll be storming from the west in red, yellow, blue and green armor. Not just because Google has the best name to scream as a war cry, but because I like the stuff they make the best out of anyone’s. It’s the simplest and most intuitive. Whether this means they are, in fact, the best or I just happen to be simpatico with their way of thinking, I can’t say.
But I’m also a devoted Facebook user. I like Facebook a lot, use it often to keep in touch with (or maybe just keep tabs on) a wide range of people and defend it when people trash it in conversation. So when Google+, Google’s latest and most ambitious stab at social media hit last week, I was a little torn. Here’s what I think so far.

Saying that Google+ is Google’s entry into social networking is a nice way of saying that it’s Google slapping Facebook in the face with a leather glove. It’s duel time, and it’s been a long time coming. What makes this the most substantial of Google’s social media attempts is that this time Google wasn’t afraid to crib the required notes from Facebook’s playbook to make it a clear competitor and do the things it needs to compete. There are some obvious, stark similarities to Facebook (the activity stream that you can post items to, clear lists of added and suggested friends, etc.) But I won’t be focusing on those, I’ll be focusing on the things that make Google+ stand out from it’s distinguished competition.

She’s Got the Looks AND the Brains
Google products have always worked. I use Google Docs, Calendar, Reader, Gmail and, of course, Search on a daily basis, and I can’t recall single time that they’ve been broken. (Purposely disabled, maybe. But never broken.) But they’ve never been much to look at. Suddenly, Google has decided that they want their things to be pretty. They’ve adapted an appealing, simple look that stays true to their history of simplicity while adding a tasteful sheen of web-y design-y goodness over the top. Some people have accused it of looking like Verizon, but I like it just fine. Google has taken this look and applied it to a lot of complicated functions that work quickly and flawlessly. You can comment on a post in the drop down notification for that post. Take a moment and create an empty Circle and then delete it. You won’t be sorry.
This is a level of visual flare that Google has never attempted, and they’re totally pulling it off. The change has also spread to Calendars, there’s been a recent beautification of Analytics and you can even select a Gmail theme that matches Google+. (I’m using it, and am also planning on buying a matching red, white and black tracksuit soon.) Facebook’s look, by contrast, is… functional at best.

Running in Circles
The aspect of Google+ that people seem the most excited about is Circles, a method of friend organization. Basically, you keep all of your friends in distinct groups, via a snazzy editor. The thing is, I already do this through Lists in Facebook. They even used to be viewable in the sidebar, enabling me to see status updates from only that List identical to the way Google+ Circles function. I thought it was really cool at the time. I never used it. Now friend Lists are buried in Facebook interface, and I don’t miss them. I could certainly be proven wrong, but I don’t expect this aspect of Google+ to maintain the level of excitement it currently has.

Sharing is Caring
The act of sharing is what I’m engaging in probably 75% of the time I’m on Facebook. I might be looking at something that someone shared, or sharing something myself. So it’s a little surprising to me that Google+ puts so little emphasis on this. That’s how it appears to me right now anyway. At first, I didn’t think there was a way to share things with specific people at all, but my friends and I eventually figured out that tagging someone in a post is the Google+ equivalent of posting an item to someone’s Facebook Wall. But this is problematic to me. Most superficially, I miss the concept of that person’s friends seeing the item I posted on their Wall. Also, I saw an item that a friend posted and was curious about who could see it. I clicked the Sharing Details and was greeted with “Visible to private list”. That settles that, I guess. But most importantly, it doesn’t seem nearly as intuitive a way to share things. Perhaps I’m just used to the way things work on Facebook, but Google+ has some work to do to win me over on this issue.

Bubba Sparks
Sparks, automated content feeds for a variety of topics, seems utterly useless to me. I’m an avid Google Reader user, going through hundreds of RSS items a day. There’s no way Google’s automated system can choose better content for me than I have for myself. And I can’t imagine that Sparks could provide enough relevant data to hold the attention for anyone who has anything more than a passing interest in any topic. And who would want to keep track of a topic they’re not interested it?
Morons, I guess. It’s probably pretty good for morons.

I was initially very confused about the concept of +1s. I could +1 a website, or a Google+ post? What was the difference between those two actions? I eventually realized that they function identically to the Facebook Like button, which has a couple of different functions depending on how it’s used. What I’m still not clear about are how the +1s effect Google Search ranking. It looks like they only effect the ranking of pages that have been publicly +1’ed by your Google+ friends if you are searching Google while you are logged in to your Google account. This is the least insidious of all scenarios. Something similar has been happening to me for a while now on Google with pages that my friends have shared on Twitter, and I don’t have a problem with it. But Google page rankings are a big deal for businesses, and if +1‘ing sticks around, it will become a very hot topic.

Different Folks
Twitter has a user base that’s distinct from tumblr’s. Facebook has a wide enough user base that there are many different types of users, but it still has an overall personality. Not everyone can access Google+ right now. I tagged one of our developers in a post and he was able to get in right away. I tagged another and he’s been trying unsuccessfully for days. The result is that, for now, mostly dedicated enthusiasts populate the site, resulting in, as one of my contacts put it, a “geek ghetto.” But Facebook started small too, originally only being available to college students. Google+’s ability to reach and appeal to more than dedicated tech enthusiasts will be a huge factor in determining whether its here to stay or destined to become a Neo Geo or Duke Nukem Forever level tech punchline.

This Land is Your Land
One thing has always creeped me out about Facebook. Not its privacy settings (I hold no illusions about posting content online using a for profit company that owes me nothing’s proprietary website), it’s the scope. Facebook seems to have been constructing a secondary, tiny internet within it’s password protected walls. While I appreciate the organization and maintenance, I don’t appreciate the lack of freedom. A business should be able to make any type of website they want and say anything they want on it without the threat of being yanked down by a large, faceless overlord. So that’s something I really appreciate about Google+; it’s +1 system works with the internet. It doesn’t attempt to harness it for its own benefit.

Is It Going To Work?
I have a lot of history on Facebook, literally, and it’s going to be very hard to pull me away from that. I recently signed up for pastposts, a service that emails me my Facebook activity from a year ago. It’s comforting. I’m not sure if I’ll end up using Facebook and Google+ side by side (with the possibility of slowly favoring Google+, which would be a smart thing for Google to encourage if they could get over their own pride) or if once the new car smell fades I’ll lose interest like I did in Wave and Buzz. Paradoxically, it will depend on what my friends do.
But let’s talk more broadly. In my opinion, computers as we currently know them encourage a short and shallow span of attention in their users. This could be why, at its heart, internet is currently most popular for posting stupid crap that takes ten seconds to watch, aimed at no one in particular. Facebook is currently better suited for this, and I don’t predict it surrendering its title anytime soon.
But this is only the beginning for Google+. I expect large and frequent changes during it’s development, and I wouldn’t put it past Google to pull this off. See you on the battlefield.

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