Why you might ditch Facebook to join Google+
We’ve reached an interesting point in the history of social networking. Right now, Facebook is the undisputed king of online interaction. Other services have come and gone, and some (*cough* Myspace) are still slowly dying out. Sites like Twitter and Reddit, which offer a more specialized experience than the more fully-featured Facebook, are actually thriving. But at the moment, there is no other heavy-hitting social network to challenge Mark Zuckerberg’s community. Not for long, though: Google recently began bringing beta users onboard its latest networking tool, named Google+.
Judging from some of the early reactions to this new product, it seems like a war is looming between Google+ and Facebook. The + service boasts a few intuitive features that may give it an edge over our current social obsession, and I think it’s time to pick where our loyalties will lie – the way we interact online may be at stake.
No matter how many people maintain a Twitter feed, I believe they will always hang on to a Facebook-like service to keep their “friends” close. We can share all we want with strangers, but sometimes we want to hear what our friends think. Google has kept that desire in mind in the design of Google+.
The first major component of the service is called “Circles” and works around the principle that when users share something with their friends list, they might want to control exactly which friends see the post. Google+ allows users to organize their friends into Circles based on common interests or mutual friends, and when the user decides to post, they can choose which Circles see it. That way, photos from last night’s party don’t end up in the feeds of your mom or your boss (unless they like seeing that sort of thing).
This might seem too much like the “Groups” portion of Facebook, but that feature operates more like a club, usually with an agreed-upon name and members who have all decided to join. Google+’s Circles concept is more of an organizational tool unique to each user. The tool encourages a more fulfilling method of sharing content, so that both the user and their friends view more posts that interest them. Personally, this seems like a great idea, as there have been a lot of times when I share something on Facebook only to get a comment from an acquaintance who didn’t understand the context of the post. Google seems to be directing their Circles tool at that kind of Facebook experience, and it might end up winning over a fair number of Facebook users.
Google+ actually has a suite of new features that are meant to offer a more intuitive experience than Facebook. “Sparks” is an interest-searching tool built on Google’s beginnings as a revolutionary search engine. Users enter an interest into the Sparks search bar and are directed to websites, videos and other related content on Google. These results can then be added to the user’s listed interests on their profile, which in turn can be shared with the user’s Circles.
The service also offers a video-chat application that seems to have spurred Facebook to announce its partnership with Skype on July 6th. Google’s option, called Hangouts, again seems to be built around a common Facebook annoyance. When your Facebook chat app is “online”, you often receive IMs from friends even when you’re not interested in chatting. Hangouts is intended to give users control over letting friends know when you are interested in chatting. If you’re already video calling with people in one of your Circles, other members of that Circle receive invitations to “come hang out” – to a maximum of 10 people. Friends can share videos and links during a Hangout, so everyone else in the gathering can check it out.
Google has even pioneered a special toolbar and a sharing button (with a +1 symbol) to stretch across other Google properties and non-affiliated websites (you might have already seen the dark grey interface pop up above some of your recent Google searches). If you see something you want to share with your circles on another Google site, the toolbar enables users to share with them instantly. Meanwhile, the +1 button is intended to square off with Facebook’s omnipresent “Like” button, to give Google+ users their own way of logging their interests in online content.
Despite these promising announcements, it’s hard to get a hands-on experience with Google+, because it’s restricted to an invite-only membership at the moment. Once it’s open to the public, we’ll get a better idea of how it’s connecting with the majority of users. Based on what we do know, it’s clear that Google+ is positioning itself as real threat to Facebook dominance, entirely through these apparently intuitive tools. Because Facebook basically invented the concept of an “ubiquitous” social network, the only way for other companies to challenge it is to build better features that more closely approximate how we all want to interact.
Google+’s major challenge will be winning over current Facebook users. Google is hoping that tools like Circles, Sparks and Hangouts will be enough to convince people to abandon their News Feeds and Farmville farms and carve out a new online life aboard Google+. What’s fascinating is that making the decision to switch to Google+ will actually be difficult for people. We now put almost as much effort into maintaining our Facebook accounts as staying in touch with friends offline, and the idea of having to start over from scratch on Google+ might scare people away. No one likes to be alone on a social network, so Google+ will have to build its community quickly to recreate (and ideally, build upon) the iconic Facebook experience of joining up and finding all your friends for the first time.
Assuming Google+ does become the latest online trend, we could soon have a bitter Internet battle on our hands – the potential influence of the Google+ community versus the proven sway of Facebook users. After several years of Facebook dominance, we could soon be asking our friends, “Which network are you on?”
What do you think about Google+? Is it a lame Facebook wannabe, or a smart new way to stay in touch with friends? Are you considering jumping ship when Google+ moves out of its trial period? Share your thoughts below, and have a look at some related articles here on Professionally Incoherent: