OK, so perhaps it is a bit early to start reviewing something that apparently most people don't know exists and that is still in testing mode. However, I have been testing it and I have found it to be...well...OK....
I have been following its development in the news and online for a while now and knew I would want to try it. I have issues with Facebook and wouldn't mind at all finding a different social networking option. My problems with FB are many so I won't go into all of them now. However, some of my biggest problems are addressed by Google + so it is worth bringing them up.
It has always felt to me that Facebook is best understood as an epic reunion party. A good portion of the most enthusiastic users I know log on to find old friends and old flames in order to discover that they, too, have kids, go to the beach, and watch Little League. Having never seen the attraction of normal reunion parties, this isn't a big draw for me. At a virtual party like this our lives are flattened. They become shallow. I have written about this before. The past is drawn into the present and we end up sharing things with folks we only dimly recall (or have never met) that we wouldn't normally share. We don't really know them anymore. On the other hand, we choose not to share things with others because there are so many witnesses. I am someone who likes to keep the past where it is. I also like to know the people I am communicating with.
One related problem I have with FB is that we are all "friends". This is the levelling thing again. Most of my FB friends aren't friends, really. Some of them were in the past. Some (hopefully) will be in the future. However, a friend is someone who calls or writes or drops by when they are in town. The friends (here I mean real friends) who don't do these things are usually people I live close to and see anyway. Yes, I know that some friendships have been rekindled thanks to FB. However, I wonder how much it contributes to making us lazy social slobs who don't ever get around to visiting. Also, if you spent time with these virtual "friends", would you realize that there are good reasons why you don't call or write or visit?
Finally, FB theoretically can be used for networking around jobs, hobbies , and interests. However, it seems like it is an "either/or" proposition. I have a weblog (obviously) which I link to FB and, I hope, interesting things to say. Every once in a while a colleague I have never met attempts to "friend" me, partly (I think) so that we can connect in clergy sorts of ways. The problem is, that person never gets to see my web links and interesting professional thoughts because they have "hid" me and my inane chatter about the kids, etc. No doubt others have hid me because they don't want the blog posts and shop-talk. That then requires two FB pages. My Burbania Posts FB page has a whopping 14 members...
So along comes Google +. Right now it is populated by the sort of people who find new computer things fun. In fact, this process has made me realize that I am one of those people. Mostly we write about being there. It is like moving into the new dorm at college. "Hey! Check out the cool fridge!" "Cable and Free-Wi-Fi!" It is awesome, Dude. We are also breaking things and waiting for maintenance to come fix them. However, even in its limited buggy state, it isn't hard to see the potential for someone like me.
The big selling point is their use of "Circles". You can put people on Google + into affinity groups based on shared interests and how you know them. Each circle can be added or removed from any post. People can be added or removed from each circle. So, if I have folks who I think want regular updates from the blog, I can put them in a category for it ("Colleagues", "Friends", "Eliot Church" depending on the topic of the post). If they are more into beach pictures, that can happen, to ("Friends" and "Family" definitely, "Colleagues" not so much, though some are in both circles). I will probably even add a "Burbania Posts" circle. That way they can get blog posts and nothing else if I (and probably they) wish.
Remember, you can add or subtract groups at will. You can also move people around. The circles are not static. That colleague you have suddenly been spending lots of time with? They can be friends, too. That buddy from 8th grade who moved to town? Let's see if they come to the picnic you invited them to. It also makes things easy for those of us who need to maintain work/life boundaries (clergy, teachers, etc). Not sure your students should see that picture? Don't let their circle in (though that will require and level of organization that may be difficult for many).
So that is the difference I see. I think there are going to be plenty of people who will not be interested in this sort of networking. For them, the FB system works well and they have invested a great deal of time into that online persona. Because some of them are, in fact, my friends and family, I will stick around FB. However, I see the appeal of Google + and will use it, too.
Instead of a reunion party, Google is trying to make something closer to a denominational convention. There is a big area where everyone can mill around. There are also smaller areas for workshops and other gatherings based on affinity and interest. There is even a place for people who want to sneak out to grab a coffee and just chat in real actual life. The people in that last group are called "friends".