Elgan: Declare independence... from Facebook!

The revolution is here: How Google+ will free us from the tyranny of King Mark.

The 4th of July is American Independence Day, and a perfect day to declare independence from Facebook.

Before the American Revolution, most colonists considered themselves British loyalists. But the growing conflict between colonies and crown revealed to Americans that the British monarchy was abusive and unwilling to give people control over their own lives.

You know, like Facebook.

We need another revolution. Facebook uses us to make gazillions of dollars, but doesn't give us the ability to control or even know exactly who we're communicating and sharing with.

What's wrong with Facebook?

Facebook has lots of little problems, and two big ones. The first big problem is that everyone you know is by default lumped into the same category: "Friend." It's like your spouse, niece, college buddy, BFF from high school, boss, grandma and former assistant are all in the same room. The things you would say to all of them are different from the things you would like to say to each of them individually, or in smaller groups.

It's impossible for most people to mentally consider such a wide grouping, so mistakes are made. When you call in sick and go to the beach, your boss sees the pictures you post. When your college buddy posts a picture of some drunken frat party from years ago, your mom sees it. When you post a lot of comments about some interest of yours, you annoy "friends" who don't share that interest.

Because "everybody" is too big a stream for anyone to deal with, Facebook filters your feed. Facebook actually stops most of your friends' status updates from showing up in your News Feed. Facebook uses a secret algorithm called EdgeRank to cut most of your connections without telling you. For most people, the majority of your "friends" don't ever see your status updates.

When you post a status update, you don't know who's not getting it. You can't know. Facebook believes it's none of your business who you're talking to. If you're a savvy user, you can go in and custom-tailor your incoming feed. But there's no way to know which minority of your "friends" sees what you post.

These two problems make Facebook feel oppressive. It's time for freedom.

Freedom of assembly

Google has tried several times to succeed in the social networking racket. Orkut, Wave and Buzz each took a completely different approach without huge success. But a new service called Google+ is a winner.

Google+ is dubbed a "project" by the search giant, rather than a product. And it's in the beta stage, available by invitation only. When Google opened up invitations this week, the service grew so fast that they had to shut off invitations. Google will soon allow invitations again. Expect to join before July is over.

I think Google+ will succeed because two very influential groups will love it. Both tech fans (people like you and me) and, more importantly, teenagers will prefer Google+ to Facebook. These two groups will like it for the same reason: Social Circles.

Google+ is organized around the truth that people don't have one "social network," but several -- high school friends, extended family, professional colleagues. In real life, these social networks rarely intersect.

Google+ enables you -- forces you, really -- to lump friends into smaller groups, which Google calls Social Circles.

We geeks will be able to create a Social Circle for each of our interests. You can have separate Social Circles for talking about the iPad, Privacy, movies, food -- whatever you're into. You won't bore people who don't care. And you can pack each Circle with brilliant people from all over the world.

Right now, teens and twentysomethings hate Facebook's everybody's-seeing-everything approach to social networking. Young people will love separating friends from family.

In fact, this feature is so youth-friendly that the only way Facebook can prevent an exodus is to essentially copy it.

Social Circles is how you control the fire hose of updates you might get from everyone you know. On Facebook, the editing of messages is secret, hidden and unknowable. On Google+, it's clear who's getting what. And the editing is controlled by you, not by invisible software governed by some software programmer's assumptions about what constitutes a meaningful relationship.

Google+ has another killer feature: Group video chat. Anyone can just open a "Hangout." Your followers are notified, and as many as 10 people can join. You can even launch a YouTube video for all to see at the same time, then mute the audio to comment.

Freedom of speech

A related concept is the "Huddle," which is a group chat or text, similar to Hangouts. While Hangouts is currently something of a cool novelty, designed to start "spontaneous" conversations among anyone who feels like jumping in, Huddles enable you to specifically choose who's in the conversation. You launch it from your phone, and it's really just an easy way to have group texting.

Freedom of the press

Google isn't only competing with Facebook, but Tumblr, a fast-growing and popular social blogging platform. Tumblr makes it easy to find great sources of content based on specific interests -- say, cooking or baseball.

Google+ offers something called Sparks, which are streams of content based on interest areas. However, these don't connect you to personal blogs, but rather news and video content.

Sparks are "conversation starters," and represent some really cool search voodoo -- a kind of "Are you feeling lucky" writ large. What's great about this is that it cleverly solves a real demand. You know all those chain e-mails that your relatives forward around? Irritating, yes. But what's going on is that people want to share stuff, but (let's be brutally honest here) don't have anything to say.

Sparks give people high-quality content in their real interest areas, which they can forward, then start a real conversation about. At first I thought Sparks was idiotic and useless. But now I realize that it's brilliant.

Freedom of choice

One of the annoying things about Facebook is that you're constantly barraged with effluent from various "apps." Somebody gets suckered in by a viral Facebook add-on, and the next thing you know you're being spammed by some canned post. "Susie answered a question about Mike!" Ugh!

You can "Hide" the app, if you want. But you'll soon get another one from another app. If you're on Facebook, you have no choice. On Google+, there are no apps.

You also have control and choice over who you follow. On Facebook, you can "friend" someone unless they "friend you back." Google+ is more like Twitter. People can "follow" you, and see your posts, without you having to "follow" them back, and vice versa. Anyone can "block" anyone else. You have more choice.

Google+ also lets you choose which device to post pictures and videos from. A feature on the Google+ Android app lets you automatically upload pictures and videos instantly and privately to the cloud as you take them. These show up as thumbnails on Google+ on any device, enabling you to post them on Google+ with a single click.

Why Google+ will become the next social superpower

It's too late for any new entrant to come in and challenge Facebook, which now has three-quarters of a billion active users. Google+ will succeed in part because Google isn't starting from scratch. It leverages your history of using Gmail, Talk, Contacts, Profiles, Buzz, Places and News. So in a way, you're already on Google+ -- especially if you're a Buzz user (Google retains things like the list of people you've blocked, for example.)

Google+ lets you add people to Social Circles even if they're not on Google+. It delivers your posts via email. In a way, Google+ acts as a mailing list service, if you choose to use it that way. This is the feature that stands as the greatest threat to Facebook.

Everybody's on Facebook because everybody's on Facebook. In the past, if you wanted to do social networking, you had to get on Facebook because that's where your friends and family were. With Google+, it doesn't matter if people are on it. As long as they have an email address, they can be part of your Social Circles.

If you're one of the millions of people who don't like Facebook but stuck with it because there was no alternative, you're in luck. Now there's an alternative.

Google+ gives us freedom at last -- and independence from Facebook.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

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