I've had a few days to play around with Google's new social network offering, Google+, and I thought I'd share some initial thoughts.
First of all, kudos to Google for "going for it" in the Facebook era. They're one of few players who actually has the resources and skill to make a serious go at a viable alternative to Facebook, and you've got to admire the effort. If the success of the movie The Social Network tells us anything, it's that Facebook has become mainstream and popular, and as generations of younger people look for ways to establish their identity in the digital age, they'll be looking for alternatives to the place where their parents and now grandparents also hang out online. By the same token, people of all ages and professions are trying to figure out just how to effectively and safely use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media tools in a world where we're being encouraged to blend our personal and professional lives together more publicly.
Is Google+ just the right thing at just the right time?
People are already writing about the high bar that Google+ will have to jump in order to see any significant migration of Facebook users, not the least of which is all the time people have invested in curating their lists of "friends" there. Facebook is going to make it as difficult as possible for its users to do any kind of exporting of account information from their system, and I don't think Google is devious enough to launch an unauthorized workaround. So people will be left to recreate their online identity on Google+, where the number of people you are connected to still largely drives your user experience.
On the other hand, despite Facebook's 750 million users, I suspect Google actually knows about at least as many people, if not more. Between its large and growing population of GMail users, the information they have about web users through tracking searches and Google Analytics data, and their ability to gather and index huge amounts of data from other sources, Google is perhaps positioned better than any other digital media organization to say "hey, we already know so much about you, why don't you make yourself at home here!?"
One of the main selling points of Google+ is the ability to organize your list of contacts into Circles, containers (or, for those who want a more widely used descriptor, "tags") that help you figure out who to share what with and how you want to slice and dice the information being shared with you. I've heard a number of people clamoring for this kind of thing on Twitter for a while now, and though Facebook lets you do a version of it, it's clumsy to use.
But as Joel Spolsky suggests, this might be asking a lot of us to exert the mental energy to determine which circle(s) each person belongs in, and to keep up with that over time. Life is messier than "Friends", "Family" and "Co-workers" (especially if you live in a smaller city like I do), and many people have adapted to the "Friend label fits all" approach on Facebook, limiting as it might be. We may not know for sure anyway until a lot more people are using the system.
From an interface design perspective, Google+ has all the hallmarks of a well thought out, well-engineered web application by a company that's been doing this for a while now. I think Google+ has a ways to go to reach the level of simplicity that Facebook has enjoyed when it comes to its primary transaction, the display of a status update from a connection and subsequent comments/likes/etc. On a single post by a connection on Google+, I counted no less than 9 different actions I could take in response (compared to 7 for a comparable post on Facebook, presented with fewer links/clickable widgets).
From a nit picky technical perspective, let me just say that the use of a "+" character as a prominent part of an online service's name is pretty cringe-worthy. The character isn't allowed in a domain name, so they had to use "plus.google.com" for the actual web address. "+" is often used as a joining character in URL query strings or a special modifier in web searches, making its use here conflict a bit now that they're using it in a site name. Google's own search engine is confused by it - try searching for "Google" and "+" as search terms and their new offering doesn't even come up on page one of the results (at least for me). I even feel slightly uncomfortable using the "+" in the title of this blog post.
Until Google makes available an API that will allow other applications to integrate with Google+, there will be a lot of finger drumming going on in the world of web app developers. Basic things like "let me post to Google+ from an app on my desktop or from Twitter" aren't possible yet, and won't be until that kind of access is allowed. Google says it's coming soon.
That's my initial take on Google+. Surely they'll making a number of refinements to the system in the coming weeks and months, and it will be a different ballgame when it's open for anyone to sign up. Until then, I don't think I'll be spending much time there as a user, but it will be very interesting to watch the evolution of what could be a significant milestone in the very short history of social media.
What do you think about Google+?