Former Google Employee Asks, ‘Google±?’

July 5, 2011

When I left Google last December, it was an open secret that Google was developing a social networking product. Now that Google has released Google+, I am at liberty to share my personal impressions.

Let’s start with the clear wins.

  • Impressive launch. Google has certainly learned its lesson from the past launches of Wave and Buzz. Google+ is unambiguously opt-in — no one is going to complain about being ambushed. People have been begging for invites. But Google is wisely releasing invites quickly enough to build critical mass. I’d say that Google has at least picked up the Quora crowd of early adopters in Silicon Valley.
  • Clean design. Design lead Andy Hertzfeld (of Macintosh fame) has nailed it, leading bloggers to comment that this looks too well designed to be a Google product. Comparing Google+ to Facebook now, I’m reminded at least a little of comparisons between Facebook and Myspace. Great move for Google here.

Now let’s talk about Google’s three big features here: Circles, Sparks, and Hangouts.

  • Circles. Straight out of Paul Adams’s presentation of social networking (which he created before he left Google for Facebook), the idea is simple: a person doesn’t have a single group of friends, but rather several groups that tend are mostly disjoint. Through Circles, Google+ makes this soft partitioning of the social space a core design principle. You add people to one or more circles, follow the stream of activity from a circle, and share with circles. It’s great in theory. But in practice it creates friction, especially for people trained on Facebook. There’s a trade-off between simplicity and expressive power, and Google is placing a strong bet on how users will make this trade-off.  I’m inclined to agree with Yishan Wong that “the sorting of friends into buckets (friend lists) is something that only nerds do”. Given Google’s deep expertise in machine learning, I’m expecting Google to reduce this friction by give users intelligent suggestions. Full disclosure: my colleagues at LinkedIn built InMaps, which infers communities from your social network.
  • Sparks. The tagline for Sparks is “For nerding out. Together.” It feels like a positioning designed by Googlers for Googlers– you can see promotional videos here and here. I haven’t seen much talk about Sparks, and what little commentary I’ve seen is less than gushing. I’ve experimented with it a bit from a consumption side, and I confess I’m underwhelmed. Perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg problem — Sparks will only be useful if users populate their profiles with interests, but right now users have no incentive to do so. If Sparks is Google’s attempt to make Reader more social, there’s still a ways to go. Full disclosure: LinkedIn has its own approach to social news, LinkedIn Today, which seems to be doing something right. :-)  
  • Hangouts. In plain English, Hangouts are group video chat embedded in a social network. Which sounds a lot like what Facebook is rumored to be releasing this week through a partnership with Skype. Which in turn was just acquired by Microsoft. Will Apple join the party too by implementing group chat in FaceTime? Competitive dynamics aside, this is a very cool feature that hopefully won’t devolve into Chatroulette. Nothing to, um, disclose here.

But the $64B question is whether all this will matter. Can Google+ sustainably co-exist with Facebook? Will people use both services — and, if so, how will they allocate their attention between them? Or is the success of Google+ predicated on displacing Facebook? Or Twitter? Either of those would certainly qualify as a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

Like Fred Wilson, I’m rooting for Google+ to succeed — but even Fred notes that he would not be able to get his family on Google+, as they are already happy with Facebook. It’s not clear to me what I can get *today* from Google+ that I can’t get from Facebook.

Granted, I’m not a heavy Facebook user, so I’m not the best person to ask this question. So readers, I ask you: why will or won’t you use Google+?