While this pales in comparison to the 750M users Facebook claims, the rate at which the new social network is growing is nothing short of astonishing. Given Google's past mistakes in the social arena, one could reasonably conclude that Plus is here to stay. There is an understandable amount of confusion over the app, including why it's different, why someone would want to use it over the well-established competition, and whether or not Google can be trusted with even more control over our increasingly taxed private information.
It's About Circles
On Google Plus, your friends are organized into circles. Circles are like Facebook’s Groups — but useful. Google helpfully suggests some common circles, and provides some with special functionality. The Incoming circle, for example, only shows content from those users who have you in circles who are not in any circles of your own. As people are added to circles their posts appear in your main timeline. From there users are able to click specific circles to see only the posts made by members of those circles. On its own, this is a one-way relationship. While it is possible to broadcast posts publicly, users are able to choose one or more circles with whom to share specific pieces of content. Users are also able to share content directly to specific users.
One of the many benefits of this method of doing things is it negates the need for users to confirm one another as "friends." If a person is interested in hearing what I have to say on Plus, he or she only needs to add me to one of their circles and any post I choose to broadcast publicly is available automatically. On its own this encapsulates virtually all of Twitter's current functionality. Adding a person to a circle is the equivalent of following that person on Twitter. Plus' reshare is Twitter's retweet.
What about Facebook?
When Plus was announced at the end of June the social web immediately dubbed it Google's "Facebook killer," and early indications are that this moniker may ultimately be deserved. While Plus is currently an invite-only system, Google has only opened invites several times since it was originally introduced, and only for several hours at a time. Each time invites have been made available tweet streams and Facebook timelines fill up with offers of available invites. It was reminiscent of the Wave launch, with the primary difference being that most who have been able to get into Plus have found it engaging.
As a response to Facebook, Plus is incredibly interesting. One of the core design goals with Plus was to ensure privacy. Users should know at all times with whom they are sharing content. Users have the ability to disable resharing of this content. With Google Takeout, users are able to download all of the information they have shared in Plus with a single click. This is in stark contrast to Facebook, whose privacy options consist of a large table of checkboxes. The Plus user interface makes it simple and easy to choose with whom to share. This makes it possible to share content we may otherwise have held back. The people in my Colleagues circle probably aren't interested in that cute thing one of my cats did yesterday, but my Close Friends will likely find it amusing. Google hasn't eliminated the need for care when posting content online, but has instead made it very easy to share the right content with the right people.
Another area where Plus stands above Facebook is in its look and feel, which sits nicely against the well-received visual refresh Google implemented to coincide with the Plus launch. This can largely be attributed to Andy Hertzfeld, who led the design team that produced the look and feel as well as the interaction design and information architecture. Hertzfeld worked for Apple from 1979 through 1984 and was one of lead designers of the original Macintosh.
While design is subjective, there can be no denying the cleverness of the system. Finding people is incredibly easy, and adding a person to a circle is as simple as dragging that person's name from a list of search results onto a literal circle with a label on it. The interface contains a level of polish never before seen in a Google product. Compared to Facebook's tiny text size and clutter, Plus is a breath of fresh air. Everything from the commenting interface to notifications to the modal view presented when looking at photos is faster, simpler, and easier to use. The iPhone-optimized web app puts Facebook’s native app to shame.
Plus also contains an assortment of features the incumbents lack. Most notable among these is the Hangout feature, which allows a user to create a video chat room where friends can join and interact in real-time. Vic Gundotra, SVP of Social at Google, recently hosted a public hangout session. It filled up almost immediately.
Plus users will also notice the notification system integrated throughout other Google properties, including Search, Gmail, Calendar, and Docs. The integration of Plus within Google’s other apps feels reminiscent of Microsoft bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. Whether you leave Gmail open throughout your workday or are simply looking for Caturday photos once you’re on Plus, you never really leave.
Plus has been available for two weeks, and it shows no signs of slowing down. That being said, it is not quite ready to serve as a complete replacement for Facebook or other social networks. In its invite-only state there are still too few people in the system to really see how it works at scale. Plus does not currently handle Events. It also currently lacks an API of any kind. This point in particular is important, as Facebook's platform and integration capabilities has played a significant role in its success. One can imagine that Google has many of these items in the pipeline, but we're left to guess at this point.