Why use Google+?
The question has dogged Google's social networking site since its launch in June. The service, on the surface, seems exactly like Facebook: You can share photos and updates with friends, chat with people, follow your friends' activities, and sort individuals into different groups based on your relationships with them. Only the vocabulary seems to have changed, with Facebook trafficking in "friend requests" and "likes," and Google+ in "circles" and "+1s."
Given that millions of people already juggle several social media services, many are wondering why they should manage yet another online profile and start over the process of forming friendships online.
Google's answer to "why Google+" has focused on the service's privacy features. The web giant has tried to distinguish Google+ from Facebook by saying that the new service "[takes] a privacy centered approach" and gives people more control over what they share and with whom.
A more compelling answer comes from Google+ users themselves. When asked why they use the new service, they describe Google+ as a place to make new friends, not re-connect with old ones, and explore their interests in everything from music and photography to politics and cycling. For them, the service's primary purpose is to deliver information, spark discovery and foster conversation between users scattered all over the world.
"Google+ is more about sharing ideas and content," said Giles Pettipher, a sound engineer living in Trinidad, during a conversation held on the Google+ Hangout group video chat feature. "Facebook is where I see graduation pictures and wedding announcements."
Users' experiences on Google+ tell the story of a site that fills the gap between existing offerings, complementing rather than directly competing with other online social media services. Its architecture, which encourages people to speak with strangers, leave lengthy replies, and customize the information they see, allows Google+ to occupy its own niche, users say. Their descriptions suggest the potential for a social media trifecta: Facebook as social network, Twitter as information network and Google+ as interest network.
Many pundits, analysts and users assume Google+ is Google's answer to Facebook, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently dismissed the service as an effort to build "a little version of Facebook."
But to some Google+ users, Facebook isn't the ideal. They say Google+ doesn't replicate the Facebook experience, nor do they want it to. They lament that Zuckerberg's social network has become a mind-numbing mess of personal updates posted by people from past lives. Google+, they say, offers an environment that promotes a dialogue about issues, rather than life events, between people who share similar interests, rather than the same middle school.
"Facebook and Google are two completely different things for me," Pettipher said. "Facebook is a way to interact with friends and family. Google+ is a way of finding fascinating content I'm interested in very, very, easily, that I wouldn't even have thought to go looking for."
While Facebook supports personal connections, Google+ fosters intellectual matches, say users, many of whom add that they've never met most of the people they interact with on Google+.
"It's a place to learn and grow the interests you have," said Richard Marsh, a technical support manager who lives in London. "I would say it's not really another place to connect with your friends, it's a place to cultivate new ones. Facebook is based on friendship barriers that are formed in normal social life. What I think Google+ does, is it breaks from the normal social boundaries into new areas."
"I don't see Google+ as a replacement for Facebook," added Ed Greshko, a Google+ user living in Taiwan. "I see it as a way to network with people I don't know."
Pettipher said he has used Hangouts to forge new relationships and has met, among other people, a coder who doubles as a hacker and firefighter, a model with expertise in gene therapy and stem cell research, someone claiming to be Eminem's cousin, and Susie, a genealogist. He noted there are DJ nights hosted on Hangouts and that he's spent six or seven hours at a stretch in Google+'s public video chats.
Asked to explain why people use Google's new social service, Google+ community manager Natalie Villalobos pointed to Google's willingness to tweak the site according to user feedback, as well as the ability of useres to connect with other like-minded individuals.
"People are utilizing the features of Google+ to discover and share meaningful content, while engaging with new and interesting people," Villalobos wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "Google+ eliminates barriers to connecting."
People on Google+ say the service offers a space for thoughtful debate that can extend beyond 140 characters -- the limit for Twitter posts -- and a way of tracking news and hobbies. Users say that they use the Circles tool, intended as a way to sort people based on relationships, to set up what are essentially news feeds on interests, such as Formula One racing, Google's Android operating system, and photography. And unlike Twitter, where replies can get lost amid the busy stream of chronologically-sorted updates, Google+ also offers a static place for people to respond to each other's comments, essentially creating a conversation hub.
"Fb [Facebook] is like a gossip place," wrote Dervis Cakmakkaya in response to a question I posed on my Google+ account, "Why do you (or don't you) use Google+?" "But the content is the important thing here," he continued. "I can discuss many people even if I don't know them. Everybody shares what they have and we learn from each other. That's why I feel comfortable here."
Marsh added, "What I see with Google+ is that people are on there for a reason: they're looking for something, they're looking to share experiences, information or knowledge. If I want to have an intellectual conversation about whatever, say, the demise of WebOS the other day, I can. There are people on there that want to do the same."
Several users noted that Google+ offered higher quality discussions than on other social sites, something they credited both to the design of the site and its population of early adopters. When it debuted, Google+ was "invitation only" and quickly attracted people from the tech community who were eager to see Google's latest attempt at social networking in the wake of several high-profile flops.
On Google+, "I really do feel like the average IQ of my online experience has doubled," Pettipher said.
When I asked followers on Google+ and Facebook to explain why they did or didn't use Google+, I received over five times as many responses on Facebook than on Google+, yet the answers were half the length -- comments averaged around 47 words on Google+, compared to 21 on Facebook. The responses on Google+ were also spam free, while several Facebook posts included messages such as "very nise any time cell me [sic]" and "The story of Mohammed Bin Abdelkrim forgotten," which was posted with a string of lengthy URLs.
Existing Google+ users may be enthusiastic, but others still need convincing. Google+ hasn't escaped the critical mass conundrum, and many people say they aren't interested in a site that has only a handful of their friends, nor do they see what sets it apart from Facebook.
"I already have my connections here, on Facebook. I don't need another social network right now," wrote Facebook user Ignacio Trujillo.
"I tried Google+ for a month or so and couldn't find a compelling reason to start over," David Travis commented on Facebook. "None of my friends were there, hardly any of the people I follow were there. It seemed like a lot of work for little gain. I didn't want to start building a digital island that no one wanted to swim to."
Though Google+ says it has attracted more than 40 million users, the lack of activity some see on the service has invited comparisons to a "ghost town." Slate's Farhad Manjoo declared the social network dead less than five months after its debut, and traffic seems to have leveled out. Even some Google executives appear to have lost interest: Google co-founder Sergey Brin posted only one public entry in November, two in October.
Google won't give up without a fight, nor can it well afford to. The web giant has lusted after Facebook's treasure trove of data for years and needs Google+ to gain information about its users and better personalize its services and ads. The more Google learns about its users, the better it can target them with advertising, the more customized it can make its products, and the more money it can make.
"Today [users] come back to us in a largely unidentified state. We know very little about them and we remember very little about them," Google+'s vice president and product manager Bradley Horowitz said in an interview with Bloomberg. "The way we think about Google+ is changing this mode of interaction so we actually get to know our users deeply. We understand who they are, what they love, who they know and then reflect that back as value to them, so that all of our services get better when users use their own data in their own services."
If Google+ can evolve as an interest network, Google may be able to amass a different type of data than Facebook about its millions of users, information that's more focused on passions than personal relationships. But it remains to be seen whether Google+ can retain the quality content and conversation people find so appealing as the service grows.
"My experience on Google+ started out predominantly with complete strangers. Now, actual friends are coming online," Marsh said. "It'll be interesting to see what they put on here. When the people I'm friends with on Facebook and on Twitter come to Google+, I wonder if the content will change."