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How Google+ Will Balkanize Your Social Life

For many, the new service offers the chance to press “reset on Facebook.”

Google launched its Facebook competitor, Google+, just over a week ago now. Even though sign-ups have so far been limited to a fraction of Facebook’s 750 million users, it already appears that, for a lot of people, Google+ will become the other social network they need to use. Why? Because a significant fraction of their friends will force them to.

It’s not just that Google+ has 10-person video hangouts, or that Google+ is magically free of privacy worries. It’s that Google has created the opportunity for Facebook-weary people to perform what one called “a reset on Facebook,” allowing them to escape from Facebook members they’ve friended over the years but don’t really want to interact with—and can’t quite bring themselves to defriend.

The killer feature of Google+ is that, unlike Facebook, LinkedIn, or most other social networks, there’s no such thing as a friend request. Users can create groups of friends, called Circles in Google+ terminology. These circles can include both other Google+ users and nonusers who receive status updates via e-mail rather than via the site. As a Google+ user, you can share your status updates and favorite links with those in one or more of these easily created circles, or with everyone. And you can see what other users have shared with you, or with everyone, in a Facebook-like feed that runs down the middle of the page. 

When a person adds you to a circle you get a notification.  If you don’t add that person to your own circles they will know because they won’t get a notification themselves. On Facebook you can cause offence by not confirming a friend request; on Google+ you can do it by not reciprocally adding someone to your circles. But you won’t have an explicit friend request to snub, nor will you create a public list of friends whom you didn’t really want to be seen with.

So you’ll never be put in the awkward situation of receiving a friend request from someone you don’t really want to be Google+ friends with. Nor will you have to face the awkward decision of whether or not to defriend a former confidant with whom you’ve fallen out. Just remove them from your circles, which are never revealed to other users. Other than that, Google+ looks and behaves a lot like Facebook.

Sure, Facebook has ways to filter, block, and organize other members so you don’t have to share every update with, say, your parents. But on Google+, your parents can’t send you a friend request, and the Circles system makes it one-click easy to share a tasteless video clip or a story of public drunkenness with your college friends without having to customize the update first. There’s no way yet to share a post with everyone in your Best Buddies circle except those who are also in your Coworkers circle, but it would be easy to add to the system before Google takes Google+ out of its limited-membership trial period.

Another subtle difference from Facebook: Google+ doesn’t yet have ads running down the side of the page, nor are there viral apps that spam all of one’s Google+ friends with updates such as, “Jane Smith has taken a test!” Given the low-key format of Google’s ads on its search engine and in its Gmail service, it seem likely that while some sort of advertising is inevitable, it won’t be the kind that addles users’ eyeballs and infuriates them with its intrusiveness. The most annoying ads Google sells will probably still be the ones that pop up at the bottom of Google’s YouTube videos.

Having been on Google+ for a week, I’m enjoying the private-club feel of the place. The only updates I see are mostly from people I personally invited to join last week.

My feed also includes frequent posts from the usual social media early adopters, such as SoupSoup blogger Anthony de Rosa, who have an ear for the interesting. Checking two social networks instead of one is inconvenient, but the difference between Facebook and Google+ is currently like work versus play —people I feel obliged to network with (Facebook), and people I’m happy to kick back with on the other (Google+).

Google has since turned off the ability to invite others to join Google+ temporarily, blocking new sign-ups with the message, “We have temporarily exceeded our capacity.” Since when does Google have capacity issues, by the way? Most likely, Google is just taking it slow, while the first few users find their way around.

Eventually, Google will open up Google+ to everyone, which means former coworkers I’ve forgotten, people I went to school with 30 years ago, and an army of public relations professionals trying to network with me will show up. But unlike Facebook, I won’t have to approve 984 friend requests. And unlike Facebook, on Google+ I won’t feel rude when I block their updates from my feed. It’s time for a reset.

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