I remain unconvinced that Google needs to be a runaway success at something else, but in launching the Google+ project yesterday which exploits the biggest problem with Facebook, I'm rooting for it to finally get social networking right.
By now, you must have heard about Google+; it's the fourth or fifth attempt by Google to create a winner in social networking. But if not, here's where it's different: it's built on letting you connect to people in accordance with their relationship to you. In other words, if this thing flies, there will be no more embarrassment on Facebook in front of Mom and Dad concerning the pictures showing you passed out at last night's kegger.
As the project's online tour explains: "You share different things with different people. So sharing the right stuff with the right people shouldn't be a hassle. Circles [which is one component of Google+] makes it easy to put your friends from Saturday night in one circle, your parents in another, and your boss in a circle by himself - just like real life."
Sure, I exaggerate about the faux pas Google+ might help you avoid, but if there is anything I wish Facebook were better at, groups is it. Not that I have tons to hide, but the fact that most of the things I share on Facebook are going to be seen by upwards of 550 people, alters what I share. Yes, it's self-censored. Like everyone else, my Facebook friends run the gamut, ranging from the teacher of my exercise class to my college cohort to my prolific brother-in-law to people I friended simply because I feel I should know them professionally.
Though Facebook does have groups, it seems like people don't use them all that much. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because groups are treated, on Facebook, as the retrofit they are. It's kind of like building a modern addition onto a center-hall Colonial. They are both houses, but the Colonial's ornamentation doesn't lend itself to something with a flat roof and huge windows. Facebook, from the way its social networking works to its advertising programs, is built on the premise of scale. Ginormous scale.
But the fact that so many people gripe about the drawbacks of Facebook's one-size-fits-all approach to friendship demonstrates that there is a need. How many times have you heard teenagers complain about their Mom wanting to friend them on Facebook? Or about employers deciding not to hire someone based on their status updates? How many times have you decided not to post that status update about your political views because you realize some of your "friends" will hold it against you?
Another potential beauty of Google+ -- which is only available on an invitation-only basis right now, and no, yours truly wasn't invited - is that it's scalable in a way that most start-up social networks are not. It's easier to declare Facebook a winner in social networking than it has been to declare previous kinds of sites, like portals, winners in their categories. It's all about the interconnectedness, and, therefore, as Facebook gets bigger, it becomes less likely that users will port their entire social network over to the Next Big Thing.
(OK, everyone, admittedly, this is where the Myspace argument enters the picture, as in: "Myspace used to have hundreds of millions of active users and Facebook still surpassed it." But believe it or not, now that it looks as if Myspace will be sold for about $550 million less than News Corp. bought it for, it's important to remember that the world was smaller back when Myspace was invented.)
Those who use Google+, won't enter it with the intent of making it their default social network, and that's an entirely appropriate place for Google to enter the market. People will join with the intent of building a smaller social network for their family, or their neighborhood, or both. In that way, it could build a steady drip, drip, drip of users, and an all-important niche -- Google having a niche play! Ha! -- which could turn into something.
That, or Google+ will light a fire under Facebook to give groups their due, and Google will be foiled in an attempt to get into social networking, once again. Either way, Google just did a good thing.