As everyone you have ever met has told you already, Google and Facebook, two Internet behemoths, have now joined battle. If you want to read just one blog post about the new social network “Google+”, it should probably be another, more knowledgeable one. If you want to read my blog post about Google+, though, you’re in luck.
Google and Facebook may both be gigantic, probably overvalued, confusingly profitable, and designed by total geeks in California, but they’re really very different beasts. Facebook is a company with an absolutely dominant chokehold on one area: the online social network. It repels all attackers and has achieved the kind of iconic association with its product which is also enjoyed by, say, Kleenex or Xerox. Google, by contrast, is more like the Mongols: once it’s satisfied it has conquered one territory, it invades the next. Google figured it had the best search engine around, so it came up with an e-mail service. And then a photo service. And then a digital composite globe. And then it bought YouTube. And now–well, you wouldn’t expect that a company which once wanted to digitize every book in the world would get bored easily, but Google got bored again, and the result is Google+.
And it is nice. Boy, is it nice.
What’s good about Google+? For one thing:
But there’s more to it than that. For example: why are the comic characters desperate for “Not Facebook”? Is it just because they want to spurn a monopoly? Are they too cool to be on the same website as everyone else? No: Facebook is clunkily designed, it has tons of bugs (I have had a false “new message” blurb pop up every time I’ve logged in for the last two days), posts randomly disappear, all those random people you last saw 10 years ago turn up on your home page for no reason at all, and everyone seems to be playing Farmville or inviting you to join them on a ninja quest.
The problem, boiled down to its essence, is that Facebook’s monopoly had become so complete, so effortless, so iconic, that not even a really good but really unflattering feature film could bring it down–oh, and also so complete that it felt able to stop innovating. There have been a few cosmetic redesigns, presumably (based on the outcome) to make the site more annoying to look at, and several new features have been rolled out to corporate users so that Facebook can actually make money. But in terms of the end user experience, the only real innovation in about a year has been an annoying, un-color-coordinated new photo gallery screen.
In steps Google+. Google’s competitor to Facebook may be another corporate giant, but it does new and marvelous things.
The one everyone talks about is circles. Circles are brilliant: they assume that in the average human’s mind, there exists a map showing where friends fit in relation to one another, and how different groups of friends are laid out, and they let you plot that map onto your social network. (Or as a friend told me as he set up his account: “Wow, I’m thinking about this just as I would groups of friends.”) Here are my current circles:
Every time I write or say anything, post photos, or share a link, a little drop-down menu allows me to choose who to share it with. If it’s a story about baseball, I share it with the baseball fan group and then my sports-hating friends don’t have to bother with it. If it’s a bizarre YouTube video and/or self-referential Internet joke, I ship it off to the “cool kids.” And if I want to tell something to my dozen or so true, real-life friends but not my zillions of online acquaintances, I use the “Friends” tag. Groups can overlap. The fact that you can have a circle of random famous people, by the way, puts G+ in competition with Twitter.
I don’t know what circles other people put me in, and they ditto. So if I’m in Joe Dwyer’s “Stupid Bastards Added Me but I’m Ignoring the Hell Out of Them” circle, I’ll never find out. (Thought: Joe would be a dweeb in this case because he could just not add me back. But the point is, if you feel socially obligated to add someone but you don’t want to deal with them, you can handle that.)
You can VERY easily filter your stream (news feed) to show updates from just one circle. Right under the “Welcome” message you have a little list of potential streams from your different groups of friends. Click away.
There are other advantages which show a carefully thought-out product. Photo uploading is easier, though, like Facebook, Google claims distribution rights to your photography (!). Photo galleries can display all sorts of details about pictures (camera, lens settings, etc.). There is video chat–and up to 20 people can chat in the same videoconference. (Connect the dots: this means it’s possible for you to have a video chat with willing famous people.) A feature called “Sparks” basically reproduces Google News results for topics that interest you. An impressive privacy section actually lets you type in the name of any of your friends and view your own page the way those friends will see it. And speaking of privacy: if you so choose, friends will need your approval to tag you in photos, so all those embarrassing pictures you posed for last weekend needn’t ever be attributed to you.
The really brilliant feature, though, is only available if you’re also using Google’s mail, search, calendar, or other applications. Every single Google site now has a little black bar running across the top which instantly warns you if you’ve got an incoming message on G+, and which lets you read and reply to the message without leaving the page. In this example, I’m on Google Maps:
The same black bar gets you from any Google site to any other Google site via a single click. In other words, they’ve created a self-contained all-purpose digital Swiss Army knife. This tab has your e-mails. This tab has all your friends, sorted out the way you want them sorted out. This tab has your calendar, this one the shared Word file you’re collaborating on, this one the search engine…
There are two meaningful ways in which Facebook can’t compete with this. The first is obvious to anyone: Facebook doesn’t have all that cool stuff. Google has satellite maps of multiple celestial bodies. Facebook has “Farmville.” Google has a database of searchable books. Facebook has a mechanism to spraypaint graffiti on your friends’ walls. In other words, Facebook was content to dominate the social networking world without ever linking that world to anything else, except sales and ads.
The other way Facebook is caught in the dust is only obvious to people on Google+, but to us it’s blindingly obvious. Google+ was designed by people who actually have social lives. I’m sorry, but the evidence suggests Mark Zuckerberg & Co. are kind of losers. Their website is designed for people who want lots of information on that crush you never got the courage to talk to in 8th grade, for people who don’t care at all about filtering the hot blast of gossip, for people who don’t mind that the two basic settings are (a) talking with one person privately, and (b) sharing with everybody you’ve ever met.
So I’ve been enjoying Google+ so far. Yeah, the comic is right: it’s like Facebook, but it’s not Facebook, and that’s all I wanted. But the comic is wrong, too. Things go deeper than that. An essential part of the Facebook ethos is its almost willful ignorance of how real social groups function and how real friends interact. Google+ knows better.