This past June, Google launched a limited Google+ field trial to accommodate the growing number of online social media users. According to some estimates, the program has already gained over 20 million users and is deemed Facebook’s next big competitor. Although the Google+ layout design is heavily inspired by Facebook, its ‘friend’ system functions quite differently. Facebook relies on a symmetrical model of friendship — Facebook ‘friends’ form when two people confirm via requests and such friends generally share most user content upon confirmation. Google+ on the other hand, has an asymmetrical model based on ‘circles.’ Like Twitter, you can follow people that may not follow you back. You can label various circle categories and drag your friends into the ones they belong. People in each circle can only see the posts and content published under their label, so no one would know if you put them under “Headdesk.”
Despite being slightly more complex than Facebook, this concept of ‘circles’ better captures the nuances and subtleties that characterize real-life relationships. This means your boss and coworkers in your ‘work’ circle or your mother in your ‘family’ circle don’t see the ludicrous pictures of your late-night drinking posted to your ‘BFF’ circle. While something akin to circles can also be worked out by tinkering with Facebook’s privacy controls, it would require a troublesome amount of work on the part of the user. Unlike having to set custom controls for each setting you’d like to monitor, managing circles is as easy as dragging and dropping them into their designated places.
In addition to circles, Google+ has ‘Hangouts’ and ‘Sparks.’ Hangouts allow users to have face to face video chats with up to ten people and even watch YouTube videos together during the live video chats. Sparks allows you to type in personal interests and retrieves anything — from pictures, books, videos, and links to blog posts that Google thinks you’ll like. If anything catches your eye, you can simply add it to your interests list. If you dig a certain link, Google has a ‘+1’ button that parallels the thumbs-up Facebook ‘Like’ button.
Given the failures of Google Buzz and Wave, it is uncertain whether Google has what it takes to succeed in the social space. This time around, however, Google has tied social strategy to web search. For example, the +1 buttons now appear alongside search results. Furthermore, to provide incentive for success, Google CEO Larry Page has linked employee bonuses to the success or failure of its products in the social space. Industry-watchers speculate that Google doesn’t really need to gain more users than Facebook to “win” in the social space. Rather, all Google+ needs to do is attract enough users to pose a credible threat and pressure Facebook into ‘opening’ up its closed platform — particularly allowing user data to become more portable. Facebook, of course, has taken notice. Facebook followed the Google+ launch by releasing its own video-chatting service in collaboration with Skype and is currently testing out a real-time news feed. What’s more worrying for Facebook is that, currently, Google+ is ad-free, and Google might have the resources to keep it ad-free indefinitely.