There have been various attempts to start a social networking service in competition with the juggernaut that is Facebook; most have fallen by the wayside. That's not to say that Facebook can never be toppled, but Facebook's very success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact that your friends are on Facebook makes Facebook the place you have to go to connect with your friends. By contrast, if you're the only person in your circle of friends to try out a new social networking service, you'll find it, well, useless.
In order for a new networking service to be successful, it has to somehow generate a critical mass of users. Facebook did that, almost by accident, when games like Farmville and Mafia Wars became Internet sensations, and players pestered their friends and neighbors to join them. Soon, that led to people discovering Facebook's usefulness as a way to share photos, invite people to events, promote businesses and what have you.
Enter Google. Google has attempted social networking products in the past, but Google+ is the company's most credible and most direct challenge to Facebook. Google hopes to leverage its success in other products -- especially GMail, Picasa (soon to be renamed Google Photos), Blogger (soon to be renamed Google Blogs) and the Android cell phone operating system -- to convince the users of those products to integrate them with Google+, hoping it can reach the critical mass required to become a serious competitor in social networking.
Last week, after some trying, I was finally able to sign up for a Google+ account. The service is in a limited beta test, and the company sporadically opens it up to new users or gives existing users the chance to invite people.
Google+ has one feature that many disgruntled Facebook users will really like. It's called circles. As you set up your Google+ account, Google+ automatically imports GMail contacts, and you have the option of importing contacts from other email services if you use them instead. Then, you assign your contacts to "circles." Some circles come pre-suggested: "friends," "family," "acquaintances," and what have you. But you can create whatever circles you like and call them whatever you like.
Then, when you get ready to share something, you can easily and naturally choose which circles to share it with, or choose to make it completely public.
"Saturday Night Live" had a parody commercial once for a fictitious filter that a hard-partying young man could use to sanitize his Facebook posts and photos for the benefit of his newly Facebook-using mother. That was a joke, but the truth of the matter is that you don't necessarily want to share everything with everybody. If you think your political opinions might alienate potential customers, for example, you might want to share them only with your inner circle. Or you might want to share a new recipe with your cooking-oriented friends but not bore your softball teammates with it. For safety reasons, you might want photos of your children shown only to trusted friends.
It may take a while to sort all of your friends into circles, but once you've done so you have an easy and elegant method to share the things you want with the appropriate people. And, presumably, because your friends are also using circles, you'll see less irrelevant content.
By the way, your contacts don't see exactly how you have them classified, although if they talk to each other they might be able to figure out on their own that contact A is seeing things contact B isn't.
There are questions, however, about your friends' ability to reshare your content with others, which could undermine your privacy expectations. The service now gives a little warning and request for confirmation when you get ready to reshare something which the original poster only posted to a limited circle.
You can also follow users' public posts, as on Twitter, in a one-way relationship.
One feature of Google+ I haven't yet been able to try out is its integration with Android (I don't have an Android phone). The Google+ Android app automatically uploads any photo you take with your phone, without making it public. You can go back at your convenience and decide which photos to actually share, and with whom.
The service has a video chat feature allowing multiple users at the same time, topping Facebook's Skype announcement last week. Google+ users can also set up "sparks," areas of interest which can be followed in Google+, such as a favorite hobby, band or TV show.
Google+ doesn't yet have games, which helped made Facebook so popular. But surely those are on the way, when and if the service attracts a wider following. The company also says it will eventually provide a way for groups and businesses to have the Google+ equivalent of what Facebook calls a page.
The big question is, will the momentum built up by the favorable coverage of Google+ be enough to convince enough people to join it? If Google builds it, will they come?
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.