There's been a lot of talk recently about Google's new social network, Google+. Seems like everywhere people are trying to make sense of it. 'Are you in?' is what they ask followed by 'Can you invite me?'. It's amazing what a little exclusivity and a lot of good execution can do for a product. Certainly reminds me of an older website that people used to be head-over-heels with: Facebook.
When Facebook first hit the scene it was both exclusive and very easy to use. The most superficial difference with Facebook's exclusivity was its invite system: if you didn't have a .edu address then you didn't get in. However since those early years Facebook has revised its membership policy. Now you can be a dog and get into Facebook. Where's the glamour in that?
Google+ is not a Facebook killer. It's not a replacement. It's not trying to emulate every aspect of Facebook (although it is copying some ideas verbatim, i.e. the suggest widget).
Google+ is an alternative. It's an option that isn't Facebook. It's Google's take on a social network, done with Google ideals while emulating Facebook truths.
What does that mean? Facebook has done many powerful things in the social network space that have become cannon. They have become so ingrained into the minds of users that were anyone to start a social network without at least following a handful of these social media axioms the risk for failure would dramatically increase. Google is no fool and has neatly avoided those pitfalls. This is why you see a news feed clone on Google+.
However Google isn't one to blindly follow the lead of others. They have a distinctive 'Google' way of approaching problems and creating solutions. Their strength is in their engineering might and it is in great effect on Google+. The most lauded feature on Google+ is Circles. It's a simple way to create groups of friends, one that hides its bland utility neatly. Facebook's attempt at this problem is its Groups product, one I personally seldom use. Google+ also has a unique picture viewing feature, one that envelops the entire screen and feels like a hybrid of Flickr and Facebook comments.
Yet perhaps the biggest difference between Google+ and Facebook is the black notification bar that lives at the top of the screen internally called the 'sandbar'. This is the special sauce of Google+ and its biggest chance for success. With Google+ you receive a notification when you're on any of Google's products. That includes Google Maps, Gmail, Calendar, and of course Search. People frequent these pages multiple times a day, each visit a new opportunity for the sandbar to show a new notification alert which often sucks you right back to using Google+. With Facebook the primary way one receives a notification is when they are logged into their Facebook account, one page that is very much walled off from the rest of the Internet. That's been its strength for the longest time but its not uncommon for a strength to become a weakness.
That's the root of Google+. It's an alternative to Facebook. It does what Facebook does well while giving users something different to play with. Its success lies firmly in the hands of users for it is they who will answer the question of 'what is better', not Google and not Facebook.