Google+ Gets a Leg Up on Facebook

Why else would Google keep trying, over and over again, to create a social network of the same type? Orkut, Jaiku, Wave, Buzz — Google has lobbed forth one fizzled flop after another.

And now there’s Google+. It’s the latest Google “we wanna be Facebook” project. The difference is, this one’s got a real shot.

Instead of throwing open its doors with a big splash, as it did with the hopelessly confusing Wave and the privacy-challenged Buzz, Google is letting Google+ seep into the world virally. You can’t yet just go sign up; you have to be invited by someone who’s already a member.

Even so, Google+ already has millions of members. That’s not quite 750 million (Facebook’s current tally), but watch out for the network effect.

At first, Google+ looks like a shameless Facebook duplicate. There’s a place for you to make Posts (your thoughts and news, like Facebook’s Wall); there’s a Stream (an endless scrolling page of your friends’ posts, like Facebook’s News Feed); and even a little +1 button (a clone of Facebook’s Like button), which may be where Google+ gets its peculiar name.

But there’s one towering, brilliant difference: Circles.

On Google+, you put the people of your life’s different social circles into — well, into Circles. That is, groups. Categories. Google starts you off with empty circles called Friends, Acquaintances, Family and Following (people you don’t know, but want to follow, as you would on Twitter). It’s a piece of cake to add new ones. They can be tiny circles (“Granny and Gramps”) or big ones (“Family Tree”), organization-based (“Fantasy League Buddies”) or arbitrary (“Annoying People”).

Creating them is a blast: an array of tiles represents your online acquaintances, which it assembles from your Gmail and other accounts. You drag each one into an actual on-screen circle, where they tumble into place. You can drag a person into more than one circle, of course. The lucky encircled friend will know that you’ve added him or her to a circle, but not which one, thank heaven.

From now on, every time you share something — a news item, a thought, a photo, a chat invitation — you can specify exactly which Circles receive it. In one fell swoop, Google has solved the layers-of-privacy problem that has dogged Facebook for years.

Senators embarrassed by their children’s drunken party photos. Potential employers reading about your crazy nightlife. Girlfriends learning accidentally about their beaus’ proposal plans. All of it goes away with Circles. You share each item with only the people who deserve to know. And simultaneously, you spare the masses from seeing news of no interest to them; why should the whole world be in on your discussion of this Friday’s bowling outing?

You’re spared, too. You can click a Circle’s name to filter the scrolling blurbs. You can view only the work-related posts, only your college buddies’ posts, or only your grandparents’ posts, with one click apiece.

Facebook has something similar, called Lists. But compared with Circles, it’s buried and a lot more effort to use. In Google+, you have to specify who gets each post or each photo (although it remembers your last selections). That’s actually a little annoying — you can’t just type an update and hit Enter — but over all, the benefits outweigh the hassle.

Google+ has a few more attractions, though, besides this clever privacy control feature. There’s Sparks, which is like a personal press-clipping service (and akin to Google Alerts). You browse for, or type in, a topic you’re interested in, like “Electric Cars,” “Cleveland Cavaliers” or “Bundt Cakes.” Google+ fills the screen with matching articles, news and videos from all over the Web. It may be the easiest, least threatening news reader in history.

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