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Google+: What is it good for?

Forgive me for being skeptical of Google+. The service is, however, the company’s fourth attempt at a social network. Orkut bombed nearly everywhere except South America, Buzz received considerable backlash for being forced onto everyone, and Friend Connect has made little impact beyond the hardcore Google fans. What makes Google+ so special?

On the current welcome page, Google have highlighted three key features of their new toy: Circles, Hangouts, and Sparks. Circles, at first glance, seems to be a more intrusive version of Facebook’s Lists feature. The downside of Facebook Lists is that people find it difficult and tricky to decide who should go where, or they do know where people should go and simply can’t be bothered to keep putting people there. Either way, the feature is ignored by a lot of people. The Circles video intro unwittingly stumbles across this important issue. As the narrator tries to decide whether Paul should come under Acquaintances or The Mad Ones, it becomes clear that relationships in real life simply aren’t as clear cut as this.

Hangouts sounds interesting, and is personally a feature I use a lot in the form of Facebook Groups. The difference there though is that Groups tend to be used more for planning things rather than hanging out, and if there’s no way to message people from the Hangout even when they’re not online, this sounds like it won’t be too useful for organizing social events.

Third up is Sparks, and this feature sounds like a fun mashup between Facebook Pages and StumbleUpon. Google is good at search. It’s the big thing it’s famous for. Sparks finds interesting pages for you based on what you say you like (e.g. fashion) and then next time you log on, you’re presented with a list of pages it thinks you might like. This is exactly the sort of thing you would expect if Google made a social network, and it’s nice to see the company realizing its strengths and playing up to them.

But Sparks and an improved Hangouts feature won’t make Google+ a success. My prediction is that if Google+ is successful, it will be because it’s not Facebook. It’s the counterculture mentality that kept Apple alive up until the early 2000s. This is one of the rare times Facebook has had a serious competitor for its 600+ million userbase. The social network has become a monolith, with its toppling over anticipated with baited breath by those that have seen networks like it before reach the same fate.

In the global media, concerns are being raised about how much information companies have on its users. Meanwhile, in the eyes of some, Facebook has become a dirty word from the growing number of unwanted features and redesigns. These people will flock to Google+ for its cleaner, simpler interface, but any privacy concerns these users may have won't be answered by changing from one gigantic company to another. From a privacy standpoint, people are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

In spite of all this, Google doesn’t need to do too much. Buzz died because Google did too much, and tried to force it down everyone’s throats. Google+ is slowly gaining a good kind of momentum. It’s seen as clean, new, and a breath of fresh air. What the company needs to focus on now is making Google+ a viable alternative to Facebook and market the service to those people looking to leave Facebook. In other words, Don’t Be Evil.

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