Google's Google+ social networking service, now out in a limited release, isn't the Facebook killer that Google no doubt hopes it will be. However, it's an innovative platform that takes a new approach to social networking by putting you in control of how you share with people. It also includes a number of intriguing features, such as one that makes it easy to ferret out content that interests you and share it with others.
Those who were put off by Google's previous failures in social networking, including Buzz and Wave, will be surprised at the usefulness and simplicity of Google+. It's a worthy enough product that you'd do well to sign up as soon as it's widely available.
In some ways, Google+ is the anti-Facebook. Facebook is predicated on the idea that all "friends" are created equal -- that you want to have the same online relationship with your mother, your best friend since high school, your boss and that person you never met but whose invitation to be a Facebook friend you absentmindedly accepted. Post an update or a photo, and every one of your "friends" sees them -- unless you remember to use Facebook's Custom Privacy box to specify who can or can't see the post.
Google+ takes the opposite tack. It lets you create "circles" of friends -- one for your family, one for friends, one for acquaintances, one for work, one for a book group and so on. That way, if you want to share plans for next Thanksgiving with your family and include photos of last Thanksgiving, you can share only with them, rather than with people you work with or people in your book group. You're put firmly in control of whom you communicate with and how you communicate with them.
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And it doesn't hurt that Google+ ties into other Google services. Messages sent to you in Google+, for example, show up in Gmail, and chats in Google Talk show up in Google+ and vice versa. Google+ ties into Google's photo site, Picasa, as well.
At first glance, the user interface of Google+ does bear a superficial similarity to that of Facebook. The main part of the screen is taken up by your "stream" -- the messages and photos you've shared with others and that others have shared with you. It includes comments on those messages and photos as well.
There's a list of people who are your friends on the right-hand side of the screen, along with suggestions for other people whom you might want to be friends with. Near the top of the page there's a text box where you can type in messages for others to see, which includes buttons for uploading photos, videos and attachments, and for sharing your location. At the very top is a navigation bar.
But there's a big difference between the Google+ stream and Facebook's News Feed. The Google+ stream is actually an accumulation of many separate streams -- one for each of your circles. On the left-hand side of the page, there's a list of all the circles that you've created. Click any of those circles, and you'll immediately see the individual stream for that circle. (You can see a feed from just one Friends list in Facebook, but it's not as obvious or easy to do.)
To create a circle, you click the Circles icon in the navigation bar at the top of the page. This brings you to a page that has pre-built labels for circles such as Friends, Family and Acquaintances. Above those circles is a collection of contacts (names and photos) gleaned from your Google Contacts list. Drag any contact into a circle to add them to that group. You can create a new circle by clicking the empty circle to the left of the other circles. All you have to do then is name it and drag contacts into it.