Rumors have swirled for over a year about Google's long-awaited social network, Google+, which is supposed to claw back some market share (in terms of time spent on the Internet) from Facebook, and which was finally unveiled yesterday. Now that Google+ is available to some journalists (not me) in a soft launch, many people are naturally wondering what differentiates it from Facebook, and Google itself is at pains to distinguish it; back in November 2010, Hugo Barra, Google's head of mobile product development said, "We're not working on a social network platform that's just going to be another social network platform." The implication was clear: Google's new social network was not going to just be a Facebook knockoff.
I will admit that I haven't had a chance to play with Google's new social network myself, but from what I can see in the press and Google's promotional video so far, for something that is supposed to not be Facebook, it sure looks a lot like Facebook. Like Facebook it centers on the core building block of the individual user profile, including pictures and areas to list interests, affiliations, and the like; it lets users post comments and pictures in public areas of profiles; it offers chat functionality as well as email-like messages for communicating with contacts; and there is the promise of a social gaming component through Google's earlier acquisition of Slide.
So the real question is, why would a prospective user turn to Google+ instead of Facebook? The only way this would happen is if Google+ actually offers some kind of functionality that Facebook lacks -- but thus far I can't find any "killer apps" in Google's social network, and the few add-ons aren't impressive enough to warrant the switch.
For example, one of the main features touted by Google is the option of conducting online video chats with multiple friends at once. Setting aside the fact that this sounds like an exercise in aggravation, Facebook users can in fact enable video chat including multi-person conference chats.
The other main "difference" from Facebook -- letting users organize their friends in ad hoc groups, to better control what information they share with different social circles -- is, again, not much of a difference after all: perhaps wary of competition on this front, Facebook introduced its "Cliques" functionality back in October 2010.
The only thing left which might distinguish Google+ from Facebook is Google's supposedly greater respect for consumer privacy -- at least, that seems to be a central theme of Google's pitch to journalists and bloggers who have covered Google+.
But this begs two questions: first of all, was there ever any indication that the broad masses of Facebook users really have serious issues with Facebook's approach to privacy? I would say not, given Facebook's spectacular growth, which came in spite of multiple high-profile privacy screw-ups.
Second of all, is Google really more trustworthy than Facebook, following their own high-profile privacy screw-ups (the ill-fated Buzz roll-out, failing to protect Gmail accounts from hackers, etc.)?
All these supposed differences still might have been important if Google+ and Facebook were both new launches just leaving the starting gate: sometimes online success is at least as much a result of clever PR spin as anything substantial. But the fact is that Facebook left the starting gate eight years ago, and has been doing laps faster and faster ever since; in other words, it has the crucial advantage of momentum, in the form of hundreds of millions of people who are already committed users. This is especially significant for a social network for the commonsensical reason that people want to be where other people already are. In the absence of any major distinctions between Google+ and Facebook -- in terms of functionality, respect for privacy, or anything else -- it's hard to imagine why these millions of users would gravitate to a similar, unproven, and more sparsely inhabited social network.