While it’s rather obvious that Google is breaking into the social world to combat Facebook’s stranglehold on that domain, those using Google+ are starting to realize that while it may have a similar look and feel to some other popular social networks, it is ultimately a different beast altogether. It’s almost like Google was well aware that it wasn't going to beat Facebook at its own game, so they went a different route and made a network that is, if nothing else, very much Google.
It’s about Content – Facebook is a platform all to itself. While it is constantly expanding and growing, it is still Facebook, and all the third party applications and connections are still ultimately governed and controlled by it. This works very well for them because Facebook’s success depends on the Facebook platform being successful. If that sounds redundant, look at Google. Google+ does not need to succeed. Google+, like all other Google products, is purely a conduit by which Internet users are compelled to use Google Search. The most obvious example of this is Android. Google doesn’t make a cent in distributing the OS to any manufacturer that wants to use it. It is open source and many of the changes that companies like HTC and Motorola make to the OS are actually reviled by users. Google doesn’t mind that they are probably losing money on Android, because they now have a disproportionately large market share in the mobile search market. Google+ is the same thing in the end. It is not about the platform, but about the content that is contained within it. It is about the activities that people use Google+ to do, hopefully making them even more dependent on Google services like Picasa and Chat to do the things they usually do online. Video chatting in Hangout will fuel their newly minted desire to take over Skype (now MicroSkype), Circles will catapult Google Contacts into use in more Google products, and instant upload shoehorns mobile users into the world of Picasa. Whereas Facebook is a means unto itself, Google+ is a means to a more Google-themed online experience, and doesn’t hinge on the success of the platform itself.
Tearing down the wall – Circles may simply seem like Facebook groups at first, but a very clear and obvious difference becomes apparent pretty quickly. When I add a user into a Circle, that user isn’t asked to add me to his own circle. That person gets notified that I’ve added him, but he can ignore that notification and get on with his life. I still have him in my Circles, I can follow everything he shares publicly, and he doesn’t have to follow my content to make that connection. This is probably the biggest difference between the Facebook model of the Social Graph and the Google+ version. It’s much more reminiscent of Twitter, a follower model. If Facebook is the friend model of social networking, and Twitter is the follower model, Google+ falls squarely in the middle. It gives you the flexibility to create groups and selectively share content, but it also lets you build out a circle of celebrities and follow every juicy bit of celebrity gossip that comes out of their gold-encrusted keyboards. It’s a model that I’m falling for pretty quickly, and it quite deftly bridges both social models in a subtle and streamlined way.
Privacy – While Facebook has gotten incrementally better at this game, it still opts for an opt-in kind of system for a majority of privacy settings. Google+ is trying to not be that. When you turn on instant upload of your phone pictures (which is off by default), you still have to selectively decide who is getting access to those pictures. When you write a status, you have to choose which groups are going to see it. It adds another step to the sharing process if you have to change these settings on the fly, but Google hopes that the choice will pay off when users realize that they have more control over the flow of their content through the web this way. This ethos applies to most areas of Google+, including Hangouts. You can open up a hangout to the whole world, but you have to actively make that decision; it’s never on by default. Also, while it isn’t “privacy” per se, everything in Google+ is SSL encrypted, as shown by the https:// protocol appearing in your address bar while browsing. That one is the default setting.
Photo Sharing – Google+ has managed to incorporate the best of both worlds in photo sharing. As easy social photos become the de facto social medium (see: incredible success of Instagr.am and sites like yFrog), the integration of Picasa is a huge win on Google’s part. Facebook is the king of social photos mainly because of sheer critical mass. People will share on Facebook because it’s easy, and more people will see it on there. Google+ adds the enthusiast options of seeing EXIF data for pictures as well as some basic touch-up and editing features. Picasa accepts large files for upload and doesn’t shrink them, so photos viewed in Google+ can be high resolution and don’t suffer from Facebook’s destruction by compression. Photos in general are done very well in Google+, and anyone looking for an alternative to Facebook with more photographer-friendly sharing options will feel at home at Google+ (no RAW uploads, though).
There are many ways to see Google+ as a Facebook clone. It’s laid out similarly, the basic ideas of sharing content socially are all there, and it’s coming from an overt competitor. However there are differences where it counts. Google+ is borrowing from a number of different ideas and technologies in the world of social networking, and forming what it believes is an ideal hybrid of them all. It is far and away the best social product Google has released to date. Google is taking this very seriously, going so far as to make changes across all major Google hubs to match the new Google+ look. Tectonic shifts are happening at Google HQ and the search company is slowly but surely transitioning to a more social model, something that’s been a long time coming but may actually come to fruition now.
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