Why Google+ may save my friendships

Steve Dinneen
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A MONTH ago I wrote a column saying Facebook shouldn’t be worried about the 6m users it lost in the US. The gist of it was that there was no chance of a serious rival emerging. Zuckerberg, I said, has the whole social network thing stitched up, and he’ll live happily ever after as king of the internet (probably literally, as some kind of Facebook cyborg who will eventually assimilate every other life-form into his utopian consciousness, in which “like” is the only emotion).

Exactly one week later Google launched its own social network. Which shows what I know.

Over the last four weeks, in the hope of saving face, I have been quietly hoping Google+ would go the same way as the firm’s Buzz and Wave ventures; ambitious but failed experiments. Unfortunately, it looks like I may have been wrong.

That’s not to say the Beta version of Google+ (which will probably outlast the human race. Isn't Gmail still in Beta? Maybe I made that up. I guess I could Google it) isn’t incredibly frustrating. Its inability to distinguish between actual friends and someone who emailed you once to try to sell you viagra, for instance, is a pain. So is not having a comprehensive search tool, which seems ridiculously counter intuitive for a company that conquered the world through search.

But Google has got it right where it really counts. Its Circles feature solves one of my fundamental problems with Facebook – that updates go to everybody in my friends list and, more pertinently, other peoples’ come straight to me.

Thanks to this, Facebook has become a method of alienating contacts, rather than making them. My list of friends moves in an ever-decreasing spiral; each time I sign in is like watching something valuable disappear down a virtual toilet. Every message I see on my news feed asking me to “Change your status to this if you support not stomping puppies to death just for the hell of it” (the implication being that if you don’t, you’re probably the kind of person who takes pleasure in doing exactly this) results in the defriending of not only the original poster but every subsequent one. Similarly, any status update about someone being “very spiritual” strikes them from the list. Then there are the casual racists, the users of emoticons, the posters of song lyrics. Facebook becomes a cruel exercise in survival of the fittest, in which I am destined to become the only person in my network, like an incredibly dull reality TV show where contestants are whittled down until you’re left with one person sitting alone on an island in silence for the rest of his life.

If people adopt Circles, this doesn’t need to be an issue. They can set up a “Spirituality” circle and a “Casual Racism” circle. I can be blissfully unaware of it all. I’ll start a circle of one and communicate only with myself. It will be prefect.

Another fascinating possibility is the potential integration of Google+ into the Android mobile operating system. Facebook has been integrated into most handsets released in the last year but Google+ can have a front-row seat on the fastest growing platform.

So far it has picked up 20m users in a month – impressive but not a dent in Facebook’s 700m. Google, though, is already winning over the geeks. And where we go, others tend to follow.

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