Google is getting into social networking. Again.
The otherwise dominant Mountain View, Calif., web giant has a sad record in that field. It's bought promising firms — Orkut, Jaiku, Dodgeball – and then failed to capitalize on them. Its in-house projects have either turned out to be inexplicable to much of the public (Google Wave) or all too easy to read as a massive privacy risk (Google Buzz).
The new Google+ (or Google Plus), invitation-only during what Google calls a "field test," aims to offer more choices to share what's on your mind and see what's on everybody else's. You don't add friends to an all-encompassing list and then, maybe, slice it into subsets; instead, you group them in "Circles" and then pick which circles (for example, "family," "alumni," "editors") see each update. If you want a wider conversation, you can also share updates with people outside your network — or, via email, those who aren't even on the site.
Doing many of those things on Facebook requires extra clicks and changes to its default privacy settings. And the drag-and-drop interface you use to toss people into one Circle or another has a pleasing playfulness absent from Facebook's "Edit Friends" page.
But once you choose one set of Circles to see an update, that choice persists the next time, and busy Plus users may also forget to edit their Circles as friendships change. Plus could easily yield as much unintentional overexposure as Facebook.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, but like Buzz, Google Plus lets you edit a posted update — no more being stuck with a late-night typo — and add basic formatting like bold and italic text.
Plus also brings easy, free group video conferencing. Open a "hangout" to some or all of your Circles — exhibitionists can invite the public — and other Plus users can click to join in. You all can also watch a YouTube clip together, although the sound or video kept dropping out when I tried that.
On an Android phone, the free Google Plus application delivers near-instant photo uploading on a par with what Apple promises for its upcoming iCloud service – with web sharing a tap away, unlike iCloud. Google says an iOS app is on the way.
Other parts of Google Plus, however, look ill thought-out. The mobile app lacks a check-in function, even though Google Plus' mobile web site includes one. The app's Huddles chat function doesn't have a counterpart on the regular site. And the site's Sparks feature does little more than save a Google News search query.
You can get hints about how Plus can grow by looking at other Google sites. For example, Google Plus has no invitations feature — but Google Calendar does, and you have to figure that the two services will link up. There are fascinating possibilities here.
(Disclosure: I've spoken at some Google events, not that any insiders leaked tidbits about Google Plus then.)
Google Plus' primary weakness, however, isn't something a software update can fix. It's the absence of the nearly 750 million users on Facebook. Many of them, having only recently succumbed to peer pressure to join that network, aren't ready to switch to another. You'll need to stay on Facebook to stay in touch with them.
Google Plus looks most promising as an experts-only social network — say, for people who now find Facebook overgrown and yearn for a more private channel for closer friends. But before you sign on, consider one other thing: If Google already knows your searches, your calendar, your contacts and even the content of your email, do you want to hand over this much more of your life to it?