When you first log in to Google+ (pronounced Google “plus”), the search giant’s new social networking platform, you are likely to be struck by how ‘Googlian’ it is. Like many of its web products, the design is purposely minimalistic as to almost be threadbare. With the smooth typefaces and the clean lines, Google’s presentations always have a distinct mechanical precision.
And if you’ve spent any time with Facebook, you’ll notice a striking resemblance to the social network. Its main page is a “feed” of users, among them your friends, co-workers and family members, updating and sharing content. You have a “profile” detailing where you live, where you work and whom you’re friends with.
But Google+ is empirically different from Facebook, from their methodologies and thoughts on privacy to its philosophy of how you should (and want) to interact with your social network. While Google+ is still in the early stages of public testing, it does make, and stand by, a bold statement that the Web isn’t a place to expand your network of friends — it’s a place to strengthen and more tightly enclose the groups of friends you already have.
The site’s main conceit is its Circles feature. It forgoes the niceties of Facebook friendships altogether by forcing you to own up to the fact that you don’t interact with all of your friends in the same way. Typically, your best friend and boss are not privy to the same details of your life, nor would you want them to be.
In Circles, you divide your friends into different groups of your choosing. For example: closest friends, family, co-workers, loose acquaintances and your fantasy baseball league. These “circles” of friends will never know what Circle they’re in, just that they’re in one.
Now when you share a message, video, link or some other ephemera, you can choose to share (or not to share) with individuals or entire Circles. Ostensibly, your feed, or as it’s called in Google+, your Stream, is only populated with information relevant and meant for you to read and consume. In Facebook terms, think of it as if the only feed you had was your Wall.
Circles does multiple things in one application that Facebook requires some legwork to mimic. Primarily, it makes tinkering with your social network privacy settings a thing of the past. Instead of having to make sure you have the right criteria set to shield any embarrassing bits of information from your family, you can simply decide not share it with your family Circle. Where Facebook requires a workaround for specific privacy controls, Google+ makes it a guiding element.
Of course, this privacy is exclusive to Google+. The rest of Google’s services are prominently integrated into the site; when you log in to Google+, you are also logged in to Gmail, Google Docs and all its other factions. You may be able to keep your Google+ Circles private, but the rest of the Google machine is still doing everything it can to keep track of you.
But by putting the user in control of essentially every facet of information shared, Google+ is as private or as public as preferred. But the more private, exclusive and closed off, the better, at least to Google+.
Traditionally, with sites such as Facebook and Twitter, the mantra is to share abundantly and with as many people as possible. On Google+, anti-social tendencies are encouraged. If you wanted to, you could exclusively interact with only your small group of friends — to hell with everyone else.
And it provides the tools you need to strengthen your Circles’ insularity. Such as the Hangout feature, which can support up to 10 users in a video chat and works snappily for a testing version. You can group chat and even watch a YouTube video alongside each other on a shared screen.
Another big part of Google+ is the plus one feature, styled as “+1”. Now in Google searches, you’ll have the option to +1 a link you like or recommend. Very much in the vein of “liking” or sharing a link with a webpage’s Facebook link, the +1 approach takes it one step beyond. Now when you’re searching Google, if one your friends has given a +1 to a link, you’ll see it in line with the link. Not only can you exclusively interact with certain Circles, you can also make sure that they’re your primary source of news as well. Another feature is Sparks, which provides you with a feed of links tailored to the keywords of your choice. Have an obsession with amateur hip-hop dance crews? Google+ is glad to nourish your addiction.
And that’s a huge basis of the social network, keeping your interactions at the specific, micro level. Unlike Facebook, it’s not about the overlap of multiple streams of information — it’s all about cutting out and combing through the ether for just the stuff you want.
That’s where Google+ becomes divisive. It essentially opens up a competing school of thought about how the Internet should work and how we should use it. As it is, Google+ does a great job at curating your friends and organizing them into groups, but it doesn’t actually do anything new or better to enhance the experiences you share with them. The debate between whether you should use Google+ or Facebook shouldn’t be about the features — it’s how these social networks want you to use them.