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Google+: Social Minus the Network?

Google's Tuesday launch of its new social network Google+ has had the Internet abuzz (not to be confused with the clunky Google Buzz communication platform that never really took off, was pretty much forgotten about, and apparently still exists).

Buzz didn't turn out to be the Twitter-killer some initially hailed it as, and its precursor Google Wave didn't really do much other than confuse people. Yet the Google crew is giving social networking one more shot. Some have predicted Google+ will be another Wave-like disaster, while others think it maybe might possibly have a chance of catching on a little. The general consensus, though, is that all this stuff already exists elsewhere on the Web, via services you're already using. (As XKCD put it, "What is it?" "Not Facebook!" "What's it like?" "Facebook!")

What makes Google+ different from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, FourSquare, and everything else on the Internet, or so say its creators, is that it's a social network that mimics the way we share information in real life.

"Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online," announced the official blog post introducing Google+. "Yet the subtlety and substance of real-world interactions are lost in the rigidness of our online tools. In this basic, human way, online sharing is awkward. Even broken. And we aim to fix it."

It's true. Social networking is absolutely nothing like interacting with humans in the real world. But, in many ways, that's actually part of its appeal.

Yes, Internet communication can be impersonal. You miss out on the inflections and gestures and expressions that imbue words with meaning, making it harder to truly connect. But there are times when that lack of closeness can actually make communication easier. It's the strength of weak ties.

One of the key features Google+ offers to differentiate itself from Facebook is "Circles," so that instead of one massive "friends list," you can assign people to categories like "Family" or "Ski Buddies," and choose precisely who to interact with. This is great for already established friendships, but it makes it too easy to get trapped in your pre-existing circles. For example, say you're currently obsessed with the YouTube video for your favorite band's new single. In Google+, you could send it to a carefully curated circle of fellow fans. But is that an advantage? On Facebook, you'd likely just post it to your wall. That's how you'd find out that the co-worker you've never really bonded with is also a big fan, or your next-door neighbor has an extra ticket to tomorrow night's show.

A recent Pew Research study shows that, among other things, Facebook helps revive "dormant" relationships, keeping people with whom you've fallen out of touch on your radar. (See also: "Are you a retrosexual?") You can have a circle of friends who live in Boston, but that won't let you know when your former roommate is moving back to town after a year abroad, and it won't give you the opportunity to reconnect. The people you're close enough with to add to a circle -- those are the people you're going to communicate with regardless of the medium. It's the people who are on the fringes that social networks help you reach.

With Circles and additional components like group video chat, Google+ lets you get social, but its focus on "real-life sharing" forgets the networking part of the equation.

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