Last week, Google announced its long-awaited answer to Facebook: Google+. The new social networking service debuted (as an invitation-only beta), along with a refresh of the look and feel of Google’s signature products like Search, Gmail, Maps, etc. I’m still hoping to land an invitation, but they have exceeded the test size for now, so I’m still on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, this answer to the PR disaster–cough, Buzz, cough–may be exactly what the millions of people who have been abandoning Facebook in recent months have been looking for. There’s a not a lot to it, but all the stuff you really want to do with your social network is there. Simplicity may just be what the doctor ordered.
There are five main features outlined in the promos so far. Instead of the clunky, and borderline worthless, groups on FB, you can set up different circles of people with whom you can choose to share–or not share– certain things. With those circles, you can create realtime video chats called Hangouts. Think of it like leaving your dorm room door open so people can come by and hang out, only you can use your circles to keep out the RA or that annoying guy from down the hall. There is also a feature called Sparks, which is kind of like a hybrid of social bookmarking, wall posts and groups. You share things you like and other people who like those things can come and “nerd out” about how much they like that thing too.
The two other features, Instant Upload and Huddle are designed to be integrated into the Android mobile platform experience. Instant Upload is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of storing your pictures and videos to your phone and then going back and uploading them, they go straight to the cloud and, eventually, into your profile. There’s a step in between so those embarrassing blinks or half-smiles can be omitted. And finally, there’s Huddle, it’s a group chat function that the mobile world has needed for far too long. Whether those make it out to all Android flavors, or only pure Google devices like the Nexus S, remains to be seen, although limiting availability of features won’t help sway people to give up their Facebook habit.
Then again, the biggest ‘plus,’ however is that it’s a useful social network that isn’t Facebook (sorry, LinkedIn). When it comes right down to it, Google Buzz aside, I just trust Google with my information more than I trust Facebook. I’m sure this trust isn’t entirely warranted, as everything Google has given me for “free” has been for the purpose of serving me more targeted advertising, but at least they’re up front about it. To put a finer point on it, most–if not all–of the privacy-affecting features are opt-in. When you set up your Chrome browser or Android device, you are presented with an option to allow tracking or not. I was getting ready to write a post about how much I hate Facebook’s notorious and nefarious habit of pushing new features (like the recent face recognition tool for tagging photos) and making people opt out, but now I can kill two birds with one stone. Facebook has been able to get away with this for so long because there was no real competitor to its social networking juggernaut. If you didn’t like it, what were you going to do, quit? Get real. Now you might be able to do just that and never look back.