To compete with Facebook, Google aims to provide intimacy rather than scale, at least initially. Will users like Google's privacy options?
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Google introduced its long-anticipated social networking service, the Google+ project, on Tuesday, underscoring its commitment to social computing.
Google+ is not so much an answer to Facebook as it is an effort to erase doubt that Google's platform can support social interaction. Without such interaction, Google faces the prospect of being left out of an increasingly vital mode of online interaction that's valued for its engagement and advertising potential.
Google+, available initially only by invitation, consists of several distinct services: Circles, which replaces the concept of a monolithic social graph--a.k.a. address book--with multiple friend groups; Hangouts, which are video chatrooms for your friend Circles; and Sparks, a search keyword-based content sharing mechanism.
It also includes a set of mobile features: Huddle, a group text-messaging service; Instant Upload, a photo sharing service designed to immediately upload pictures taken with one's phone camera, and the ability to include location data with any Google+ post.
The difference between Google's vision of social networking and Facebook's vision is exemplified by Circles. Google sees not one but many social graphs for people. In a blog post, SVP of engineering Vic Gundotra, describes the status quo--which is to say Facebook--with a pointed dismissal.
"The problem is that today's online services turn friendship into fast food--wrapping everyone in 'friend' paper--and sharing really suffers," Gundotra said, citing the drawbacks of indiscriminate sharing.
Gundotra addresses the potential privacy benefits of Google's approach only obliquely. Google+, he says, "is a different kind of project, requiring a different kind of focus--on you. That's why we're giving you more ways to stay private or go public; more meaningful choices around your friends and your data; and more ways to let us know how we're doing."
Google's answer to "friend" lists that number in the hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, is selective sharing, or Circles--small groups of friends organized around common interests or connections. Facebook however has already tried to address this issue through products like Friend Lists and Facebook Groups.
Google+ raises questions about the fate of other services with social networking components like Google Buzz and Google Latitude, neither of which appear to be integrated with Google+ services. It's also unclear at the moment how thoroughly Google's +1 button will be integrated into Google+.
These issues are likely to be resolved over time, however. Google is warning early users of Google+ that the service is a work-in-progress.
Jason Hennessey, CEO of Everspark Interactive, a search engine optimization firm, said in a phone interview that while Google appears to have done compelling work on Google+, the company also appears to be duplicating functionality available on other services. He said that Google is trying to recapture some of the activity that has migrated to Facebook.
Hennessey said he expects Google+ will be well received, but doubts that people will stick with it after the novelty wears off. "I think people will go back to their preexisting networks," he said. "There's only so much social networking that you can really do."
He also said that he expects Google will have its +1 button integrated with Google+ sooner rather than later, because the data users provide with a +1 endorsement is particularly valuable for delivering personalized search results.
Google+, he believes, will be particularly useful for companies, because they will be able to use the new services for communication and collaboration. "I think this is a great intranet solution for businesses," he said. "As we become more and more virtual, this technology allows people to come together more easily and collaborate more efficiently."
Google faces the same challenge it has in the past to convince users to input lists of friends. Users can import their Google Contacts or contacts exported from other services in .csv files. But there's no easy way to import Facebook friends, which is the way Facebook wants it.
As if to underscore the extent to which Facebook limits data export--while also making a point to antitrust investigators around the globe--Google's Data Liberation Front on Tuesday announced Google Takeout, a way to export data from multiple Google services at once, including Google Buzz, Contacts, and Circles.
In a video, Google engineer Brian Fitzpatrick framed the issue thus: "We believe that if we make it easy to leave Google, we have to work just that much harder to make sure you don't want to."
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