Social Circles in the Wake of Google Plus

I've had fun watching social media for the past week as Google+ has arrived and totally wrecked the place. Talk about disruption! The best part for me has been seeing who cares and who doesn't in my close networks; that is to say, seeing which of my Facebook friends want in. Twitter friends, I love you, but I don't know you. Facebook is where I keep my real-life connections, and that's a shame, because Facebook is a horrific, monstrous place.

Good thing there's Google+ now, because it solves all the problems Facebook has.

I knew it immediately, because I was blessed with a first-round invite from a good friend in the Googleplex. I logged in, got my bearings, and I thought, Wow, this is it. Too bad I'm all alone in here.

And unfortunately, Google has made it rather difficult to bring friends along with us, opening and closing signups fitfully and secretively, but I've managed to get a pretty critical mass in there by now. I still have to spend time on Facebook, but at this point, most of it is spent updating people about when Google+ is back open.

But it was such a delight to see pretty intense interest from friends who aren't as obsessed with the Internet as I am. Social media are a part of life now, and they matter enough that people are not satisfied with the current offerings.

We use these things. We use them more than porn. It's too easy to dismiss them as time-wasters. The companies that build these social networks are vying to write the future of how we communicate with each other, that fundamental facet of being human. It's not trivial.

And it's not a company, or a product, that's going to win. It will be a concept, a method. The various social networking sites all revolve around a small set of very simple rules for communication: one-way or two-way relationships, public or private, how groups work, what sorts of messages we can send. We, as the free users, are testing these ideas. Whichever ones win out, it will not be their brand that matters. You think we'll still be going to Facebook.com to reach our friend groups in 15 years? No way. Some protocols will go on to be the way communication happens, and the bad ideas will fade away.

What's interesting about the present era in social networking is not which site is the most fun. It's which company's vision is the clearest.

I'm not interested in making feature-for-feature comparisons; this is not that kind of blog post. There are plenty of those. Google them.

(you see what I did there?)

I'm not interested in Facebook Groups, Twitter Lists, or Google+ Circles as features of products; I'm interested in them as representations of relationships. Who gets human communication, and who will build the best future around it?

I'm betting on Google with a side of Twitter.

Facebook used to be fun. Now, though, it's a wasteland. It's a walled-off proto-Internet based on links to other people's marketing content, not the users ourselves. Just look at a Facebook profile page: a little bitty headline, a few photos, and then a bunch of big, ugly, graphical representations of links to other pages. You only get a couple of lines of your own text before it disappears behind "See more." Facebook seems to think that our identities are comprised of our associations with other things we "like," rather than original thoughts. Their business is based on profiting off of those associations, and so their social network exists purely to identify, amplify, and propagate them. It has way, way too many features, little clickable things everywhere, each of them aimed toward this end, and it's trying to suck up all our Internet time inside them. That is all Facebook does.

Twitter, by contrast, only still exists for one powerful reason: It's simple. In fact, I think that Twitter's solution is so elegant that it can, and should, carry on alongside whatever other network wins the war of personal identity, Google and Facebook being the chief contestants. Twitter isn't so much about identity; it's about headlines. It's about scanning the stream of information and filtering for sources you trust. It works the same on every platform, but its concise format makes it perfect for the mobile touch-screen environment. Compare the jumbled noise of your Facebook news feed or Google+ stream, what someone in my Twitter feed (can't remember, sorry) called "information Tetris," with the uniform format and brevity of your Twitter feed, and you'll see that both are necessary, as long as they're both filtered properly. So don't think of Twitter as a website; think of it as a protocol. Think of it as a newspaper you can talk to. It's not for hanging out; it's for dipping in and out.

But I think Google+ will herald the next phase of identity on the web. It's more human than Facebook, and it's richer than Twitter. Google doesn't need to wall you in to figure you out; they are the gateway to the whole web. This is how Google+ works; we already use their web portals for so many other things, G+ can just be a layer that sits in a sexy black toolbar above it, out of the way, until we want to share something.

Its relationship metaphor finds a happy medium between the other two big names. It mixes two-way friendships and one-way following with Circles, which, while it takes some work, is a devastatingly elegant way to filter our own activity, so all our contacts don't get the constant storm of Twitter or the irrelevant babble of Facebook. Meanwhile, look at the Google+ profile. It's the opposite of Facebook. It's all you.

Google's killer feature, though, is its mobile operating system. Google does phones. Phones come with us everywhere, and we use them to share what we're doing. Does Facebook do phones? No. They do buggy apps on other people's phones.

Twitter, meanwhile, will be in Apple's mobile operating system this fall, and that's very interesting. Google apps work just fine on iOS. The Google+ app should be out any minute now, but the web version works great in the meantime. That's fine for Apple; they're not playing in the web identity game. They care more about device identity, and they've got a hook with Twitter integration in their sleek devices that Google doesn't have with Android. Android's integration of Google+ can be vivid, social, verbose. That's great. But Apple's integration of Twitter will be concise, quick, clean, Apple-style. A world with two dominant smartphone platforms, based on user preferences, begins to make sense.

Google's branding of their social network is devastatingly clever. Look at it: Google+. That just says "Google," with a little thingy next to it. Twitter has their @ and Google has their +. These brands are about identity. Google's identity has been "the place you search for stuff," and now they want to introduce +1 thing: a place to share what we find with each other.

Twitter, with its @, is where "it's at" right now; if there's something going on, Twitter will be humming alongside it. This is a very different game than Google+ is playing.

What does Facebook have? Air quotes around the word "like."

Update 9/24/11: I obviously underestimated Facebook. The Timeline is an amazing innovation, wiping away everything I said about the Facebook profile. I'm no longer sure which of the behemoths is going to win, or if there is even a win-state. I still think Twitter will be fine, though.