Two invitations to Google+ finally reached me this afternoon and I spent some time tonight playing around with the service. It is similar to Facebook except that instead of one giant mass of undifferentiated friends, Google+ readers can group their "friends" into "circles" — family members, business associates, college friends, etc. That makes it easier to share only what's appropriate with each group.
I can understand the problem this is designed to solve. Certain of my left-wing family members might not want to see links to my right-wing political commentary, and certain of my right-wing political followers or business associates might not want to see the family vacation pictures.
But the entry cost to a user of Google+ of solving this problem is pretty high. The user interface, dragging a name or a face into a circle and watching it zoom around and make a cool noise, is pretty nifty. But the chore involved — wading through your list of 500 or 1000 or 1500 "friends" or contacts and then figuring out how to categorize them into ways that make sense — is actually something of a hassle. Should Person A go under "college friends" or "Brooklyn friends" or "former New York Sun people" or "Right-wing Jews" or three of those circles? The default "friends"/"family"/"acquaintances" is too coarse to be much of an improvement over Facebook, it seems to me. If one is going to invest the time in going through and sorting all those contacts into boxes, one might as well make the boxes specific enough to be useful in differentiating information. But even those "circles" don't really do justice to the texture and complexity and nuance of an individual human relationship.
There are other ways to solve this problem other than going through the sorting exercise that Google+ asks for. One is to use the "limited profile" function in Facebook as you add new Facebook "friends" to prevent all of your Facebook "friends" from seeing all your photos or status updates. Another is to limit your Facebook posts to things you really want to broadcast — basically, the same as Twitter — and use other communication techniques, like email or telephone calls or an in-person meeting or videoconference, for more narrowly focused communications.
For Google, Google+ doesn't have to be a Facebook replacement or Facebook killer to be a success. Google just needs to get enough people to share relationships with them that they can they use the data to keep their search function the market leader — "social search" — and also use the data to improve their ad-targeting — if "A" clicked on an ad for "X," then Google will show the same ad to the people in A's circle, and get a higher click-through rate on the ad, and more revenue from it.
As a Google shareholder, I have a financial interest Google+ being a success, at least in those terms. But as a time-constrained person who is already on Facebook and Twitter, I can't really see spending the time up-front to sort all those contacts into different circles, beyond the initial bit of sorting I did just to experiment with the site. If other Google+ users have different reactions, I'd be curious to know about them — feel free to use the comments below. And anyone who wants an invitation to test the thing out, I'd be happy to try to send you one. The stock market seems to have a positive view of the thing — Google shares went on a nice roughly 15% run recently, to $546 on July 7 from $474 on June 24.