Google Plus launched in limited release Tuesday June 28, 2011. Google says
Today, the connections between people increasingly happen online. 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.
Google Blog - Introducing the Google+ project: Real-life sharing, rethought for the web - June 28, 2011
Plus, which lives at http://plus.google.com/ , is a social network centred around sharing a few types of content: text, photos, links and locations. There was a brief window opened with lots of invites going out, but it's still in "Field Trial" and they've disabled additional invites for the moment.
We've shut down invite mechanism for the night. Insane demand. We need to do this carefully, and in a controlled way. Thank you all for your interest!
Vic Gundotra (reported by businessinsider.com to be VP of Social at Google), in a public post on Google Plus - https://plus.google.com/107117483540235115863/posts/PhJFJqLyRnm - June 29, 2011 at 11:45PM
As a rough overview, Google+ is very very much like Facebook.
The home page of Google+ is called Stream and works much like the Facebook News Feed. From a user interface perspective they're basically identical. Here's a zoom in on the two share boxes at the top of the respective home screens:
Google manages sharing rights (who can see things you share) using "Circles", which are groups of people you select. Facebook manages sharing rights using Friend Lists (if you've never seen Facebook's feature, you can configure it by clicking on Friends in the left-hand main menu and then clicking on Manage Friend Lists).
Each service lets you specify per-post what groups of people should be able to see the post. Google's claim is that Circles are easier to manage and more visibly surfaced as a key feature of the service. It's certainly true that with Circles you can drag and drop people around, and there are some animations when you perform various actions on Circles (the most notable being when you delete a circle, it rolls away and disappears).
I'm not convinced however that this somewhat-better sharing list management is enough of a killer app to distinguish Google+ from Facebook. And Facebook could easily and I assume quickly slap a better user interface on top of its existing Friend List feature, which is already surfaced at the bottom of every post (by clicking on the lock icon, as shown in the screenshot above). And I'm not sure that "Your Circles" and "Extended Circles" is clearer language than "Friends only" and "Friends of friends" (the functionality described by those two sets of phrases is the same, "Extended Circles" = "Friends of friends").
Just as Facebook posts have "Like - Comment - Share" (with share only appearing depending on post rights), Google+ has +1 - Comment - Share. Google+ posts ALWAYS have share, by default. You have to manually disable resharing (which you can only do on an individual post after it is created, not globally) if you don't want people to have a Share link for your post.
SIDEBAR: Google+ and Google Plus One
In a move which will create endless brand confusion, Google Plus, the social network, and Google Plus One, the "Like" button, are two different things. But Google Plus also uses +1 buttons on posts to indicate the equivalent of a Facebook "Like".
You can also chat (the same as in Facebook). And you get notifications if e.g. someone adds a comment to an item you posted (the same as in Facebook). You can indicate people in a post by using a + and selecting their name (in Facebook you use an @).
If you're in the main interface, there are basically only two things you can see that don't translate directly into Facebook features: Sparks, which is a way of (on a separate screen) getting search results for keywords of interest, and Hangout, which is a multi-way video chat.
And indeed when you go to the main plus.google.com page without being logged in, the three things it shows as features are Circles, Hangout and Sparks. The other two features Google mentions if you drill down are Instant Upload (every photo and video you take on your mobile device immediately goes onto G+; better have a good data plan and a fast connection; only works on Android at the moment) and Huddle (basically a small group chat, like a private IRC chat room).
That's basically it. And yes of course it's initial field trial preliminary first features etc. etc.
Stephen Levy wrote a long article for Wired about the project: Inside Google+ — How the Search Giant Plans to Go Social. I do like the code name, "Emerald Sea". And there's no doubt a lot more to come. But right now, it's basically Facebook, except without your social graph there, for people with a Gmail address.
UPDATE 2011-07-01: A couple other points worth mentioning
1) It appears that unlike Facebook which limits you to a (perhaps insider-joke) 420 character maximum per initial status update, Google+ lets you write status posts that are as long as you want - Andy Hertzfeld wrote a public post that is essentially a blog post - https://plus.google.com/117840649766034848455/posts/FddaP6jeCqp
2) I also note that the URLs that G+ produces (as with the giant jumble of plus.google.com/USERID/post/POSTID above) are terrible SEO - Google Search loves URLs with descriptive text in them, not URLs that are just alphanumeric jumbles.
* you can't search the Stream. Yes, that's right, Google, the company built on search, provides no way for you to search the stuff that is posted (which was a bit of a pain as I tried to assemble this blog post from items that I and others had posted in the Stream)
* There is no real integration with Google Buzz - it's not even easy to find Google Buzz, which is hidden away in your own profile, under Buzz.
* There is no integration whatsoever with Google Docs or Google Reader, two key places where people have existing social networks where they share and comment. There's also no integration with Google Books, a rich source of content.
* It's actually very hard to get content into Google Plus other than by copying and pasting, or uploading. There's no bookmarklet to share into the service. There's no way to import RSS feeds. There's no way to gateway to or from Twitter or to/from bookmarking services (even Google Bookmarks).
* It appears that photos added to G+ also go into Picasa Web, and you can "import" photos into the G+ display from G+. It seems that videos added live inside G+, they don't go to YouTube.
* There is no way to share content by topic, e.g. there are no hashtags or tags you can apply to posts.
* There is no way to filter by content e.g. you can't set a setting so that you see all of someone's posted links, but none of their posted photos.
* There's no chain of attributions, unlike Tumblr - if Bob shares Sue's post and I reshare it from Bob, you never see that I got it from Bob, you only see that it's from Sue.
* Via Brian Alkerton I found out there doesn't appear to be any way to see the global public stream (the stream of all public updates) although later in the discussion it mentions you can see public posts "nearby" (that is tagged with locations close to your current one) using the Android app
UPDATE 2011-07-01: You can also get the "nearby" option on the mobile site m.google.com/plus ( or www.google.com/mobile/+/ ). In Stream you will see a link on the upper-left-hand side that says "< Nearby" (it will of course request your location from your browser; if this is not available nothing will be displayed). ENDUPDATE
* There's no API although ReadWriteWeb reports you can sign up for a developers mailing list.
* I don't know if you can get Analytics or other stats on your Public posts.
And there are of course various bugs and eccentricities.
Additionally, for all the emphasis on Circles and privacy, it's still pretty easy to leak stuff out. Bob posts in his stream, Sue shares the post, now I can share the post too, even if I don't know Bob. Posts only say "Public" or "Limited" and when you click on "Limited" you only see (up to 21) individual user names, not the circles that you used in the original rights on the post.
Also, Circles themselves are private objects, you can't see what circles I've put you in, and I can't make a circle and share it with other people in the way I can make a Twitter list and share it. Other than Huddle there's no way for people in a Circle to all get in one place and do things together, there's no concept of group spaces.
However, surprisingly, anyone you add to a Circle shows up in a flat list on your public profile by default. You have to go to https://plus.google.com/me/about/edit/nv in order to change or disable this display (info from a public Plus post by Gary Boyer of Google).
If you set the rights to Public, the post appears on what used to be your Google Profile page, which is now your Plus page. This is mine: http://plus.google.com/117260312446321547979 There doesn't seem to be any way to claim a short userid URL (e.g. http://plus.google.com/scilib ) - so this is a pretty awkward way of sharing your public identity, unless you and the people you talk to can memorise 21-digit numbers.
There's no confirmation needed before someone can add you to a circle - you have to see the notification that you were added and then add them to the Blocked Circle if you don't want your public content to show up in their stream.
Overall, I am surprised that (whether they intended to do so or not), the field trial as currently released is basically Google Facebook, except with only the main Facebook News Feed features (no apps, no groups, no pages etc.) This is very different from Wave, which was actually quite difficult to grasp as it was a tool quite unique to the way Lars and Jens Rasmussen liked to work together. People who have used Facebook in particular, or similar interfaces like Yammer or even the main LinkedIn sharing interface, will have no difficulty understanding the concepts of Google Plus. But I'm not sure what would draw them to use Google Plus over existing services.
I'm not sure this mental model of many different Circles that all live within one service is the right one.
I thought a lot about circles and I basically share things in the following ways:
* with friends through email if I want to have some confidence that a website leak won't make a private joke suddenly public
* with friends through Facebook if it's a general thing that doesn't need any response. specifically photos through Facebook. Facebook not because I like it particularly, I'd rather just put stuff in a private space on e.g. Flickr but it's too hard to get people into pseudo-private web sharing spaces other than Facebook.
* everything else I do is either work public, or Ottawa public, or personal commentary, or interest-specific public.
- if it's work public and short or a link, I put it on Twitter (I sometimes copy to Facebook, Yammer, emails or other locations ONLY because not everyone follows Twitter)
- if it's work public and either I really think it's of particular interest or it's some longform thoughts I put it in my blog (which echos out through RSS to various channels including FriendFeed and even a dedicated Twitter broadcast account @scilibfeed)
- if it's about events in Ottawa, Ottawa urban planning, something I saw walking down the street, or a snarky comment etc. I put it into my personal Twitter or my personal blog
- if it's interest-specific, I go where the people are - I might post digital photography info to dpreviews.com, or Ottawa building photos to SkyscraperPage Ottawa forum, or Battlestar Galactica thoughts to an io9 comments thread.
Here's the thing: this doesn't map well to Google Plus Circles at all. Other than e.g. pictures of my friends' pets, everything is public, it's just public in different places and channels. It's not all in different private circles. And even "work public" is more nuanced than that, because that has sub-interest categories as well, all of which I can signal by using blog post tags or Twitter hashtags. It's very rare that I want to reach just a small number of specific people, and when I do I always send an email. I don't see circles replacing those targetted emails for me. In any case, in general I want to reach anyone on the entire Internet with a particular interest e.g. in open data / #opendata, not just people I know who have that interest.
So in the end, unless Google brings out deep integration with more Google products, and a lot more unique features that are useful to people, I don't see how Google Plus competes either with its obvious direct competitor, Facebook, nor with its secondary competitors (e.g. LinkedIn and Yammer) nor with the general public web tools (blogs and microblogs, photo-sharing sites, video-sharing sites, topic-specific sites).
Another way in which this is clearly NOT the public web is that there are Community Standards for Google Plus. (I am thankful to jilliancyork.com for comparing the Facebook and Google Plus community standards). This is a policed sharing network, with specific types of content excluded (basically, the same types of content that Facebook prohibits, including nudity). This is not a way for you to create your own private sharing space, this is a policed space that Google permits you to use - and remember of course the maxim "If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." (UPDATE 2011-07-11: quote attributed to Andrew Lewis aka blue beetle - thanks to @drs1969 for pointer to blog post with info and to @RepoRat for confirmation. ENDUPDATE)
A function that is useful to me, content aggregation and discussions with groups, is currently provided by FriendFeed but it's pretty clear that it is doomed (Facebook bought FriendFeed and immediately put their staff on new projects). One direction that Google Plus could go would be to be a content aggregator in the way that FriendFeed is, as I said on Plus:
If G+ made it possible to 1) automatically stream content in and 2) create topic discussion group areas, then I think it would be a usable replacement for FriendFeed.
But I don't know that there are enough people with the use case of aggregating content (or the energy to set up and maintain all the imports) in order to make that use case generally useful. (In case you're wondering what it looks like in practice, my FriendFeed account is http://friendfeed.com/scilib but I have to admit that Twitter is by far the main place I share and discuss content now.)
I do anticipate that the +1 button will become more integrated across Google properties and will become the primary way to share into Google Plus (right now although there is a "share" box in the new black Google toolbar, it doesn't pre-populate with a page url when you click it when you're visiting another Google site). And I expect that there will be more integration with other Google services generally. More options is always better, and Google Takeout is a nice guarantee of content portability. It's certainly a much smoother launch than the privacy disaster of Buzz or the confusion of Wave. But I still see a leaning towards dubious defaults (e.g. the displaying of people you've added to your circles, requiring locating an obscure setting screen to disable) combined with a lack of compelling, unique new features.
Time will tell.