Social Showdown

3 minute read
Harry Mccracken

Google may be one of the most popular and prosperous enterprises the world has ever known, but it has a well-developed jealous streak. For years, much of its jealousy has been directed at Facebook, where more than 750 million active users collectively spend more than 700 billion minutes each month. And while Facebook has been busy connecting most of the planet’s online population, Google’s social-networking efforts, such as Orkut, Jaiku, Dodgeball, Wave and Buzz, have either flopped or floundered. (O.K., Orkut became a phenomenon, but only in Brazil and India.)

On June 28, the search-engine kingpin tried again, this time with a loosely knit collection of services it’s calling the Google+ project. It was instantly greeted as a plausible threat to Facebook’s dominance, a startling assessment by bloggers and journalists given that some of these same folks have long delighted in bashing Google for its lack of social skills. Persuading large numbers of consumers to decamp from Facebook will be an immense challenge, but Google has already changed the competitive dynamic. Among the curious checking out Google+ has been Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who set a record by attracting more than 110,000 followers (as of July 11) on the nascent network.

(See how Google has broken its social networking curse with Google+.)

Wide swaths of Google+ are eerily familiar, such as the +1 button, which serves precisely the same thumbs-up function as Facebook’s Like button. It also piggybacks on existing Google offerings such as Gmail and the Picasa photo-sharing service. Overall, though, Google+ feels fresh and inventive. An addictive video-chat feature named Hangouts lets you use a webcam to pal around with up to nine other people. Sparks, a special-interest search engine, helps you find stuff to share. And the interface — designed in part by Andy Hertzfeld, one of the creators of the Macintosh — is as playful as Facebook’s is bland.

Unlike Facebook (and like Twitter), Google+ lets you follow other members without getting their permission. You do, however, need to put every person you follow into one or more Circles: customizable groupings such as family, friends, acquaintances, book-club members, poker buddies and so on. Each time you share a status update, photo or other item, you can restrict it to certain Circles — an option that reduces the noise level and enhances privacy.

(See why social networks are bad business.)

For now, Google+ is defined as much by what’s missing as by what’s there. As I write, Google hasn’t thrown the doors wide open; it began by letting in VIPs, then started admitting batches of wait-listers. There are no teeming masses of humanity poking one another, sharing videos of windsurfing pigs and allowing applications like FarmVille to automatically push out updates on their behalf. In fact, Google+ has no third-party apps or autogenerated anything, which makes the whole experience less overwhelming and spammy than Facebook.

Of course, Facebook probably felt more cozy and inviting back in 2004, when it had few features and was inhabited entirely by Zuckerberg’s Harvard classmates. If an ever expanding Google+ devolves into a slight variant of today’s Facebook, it will be a shame. Google has the opportunity to give the world something it could really use: a big-time social network with a small-town feel.

See a photographic history of Google Doodles.

See historical photos added to Google Earth.

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