Over at Wired, Steven Levy has a pretty fascinating "deep dive" into Google+, Google's just-unveiled suite of social networking apps. Levy had all kinds of early access to Google+ and has followed its development for years. Whatever you think of this effort, it's interesting to hear the history behind the project. Google is betting a lot on this, in a way they've never done before. Levy definitely comes across as bullish on the project's prospects, citing an early beta's adoption by 90% of Google's world wide employees the first day it was available, which is certainly impressive.
Whether that kind of adoption will translate to non-employees and whether it will stick are the major keys to whether this thing even has a chance of putting a dent in Facebook. Facebook evolved by focusing on one college campus first, then all college campuses, then expanding to everyone. For a social network to work, either your friends have to be on there already, or you have to convince them to join. For a long time, Twitter had a notoriously steep learning curve because for most people it was an empty room.
This is less of a problem for Twitter now because Twitter is public-focused. Networks like Facebook and Google+ that focus on private interactions with selected people need that critical mass to really start rolling. Facebook now has near-total mass. People who hate Facebook still sign up for it because they're tired of being pestered about it or missing out on all the photos, etc. It's where their friends and family are hanging out, so their refusal to join only pushes them out of those social circles. This is very powerful, and extremely hard to dislodge.
Dave Winer is skeptical that Google+ can just open up a fully-baked social network and people will come. He's right that this is just not the way many massively adopted technology (including Google) have become successful. They don't pop up fully-formed—they start small, they grow and adapt, often changing fundamentally in response to the way they are used. The people who created Twitter had little notion of the Twitter we know today. They didn't create it to kill something else, they created it because it was useful to them, and then they made it useful to others.
Since Facebook has this huge mass already, Google+ will need to be able to tap into Facebook to succeed, but why would Facebook give a company that clearly wants to kill them the keys to their users? Levy describes how Google has approached Facebook about this, but the relationship between the companies has recently gotten worse, and apparently those discussions have stopped. This is big trouble. Facebook users aren't going to just jump ship, and they're not going to want to manage two separate networks. If they can make them work together, then maybe Google has a shot at differentiating itself with features and eventually pulling away. But first they need the content.
The other major issue is privacy. Google is touting the "Circles" feature as being a big improvement over Facebook in this area, but while people love Google's tools, once things start getting too connected and the data Google is collected surfaces, it becomes clear very quickly how much Google knows about you, and that gets creepy fast. Google has a terrible track record with this stuff (Buzz), and there's not much trust there.
Quotes like this one from Google's Joseph Smarr certainly don't help (emphasis added):
“We’ve got this whole system already in place that hasn’t been used that much where we keep track of every time you e-mail someone or chat to them or things like that,” says Smarr. “Then we compute affinity scores. So we’re able to do suggestions not only about who you should add to a circle, or even what circles you could create out of whole cloth.”
Ugh. Does anyone know a single person who would want Google to "compute affinity scores" based on who you email? No.
All that said, Google is taking this extremely seriously, and I don't think it's going to be the next Wave or Buzz—side-projects (at best) that were quickly killed when they didn't take off. It's clear that they're rolling this out much more slowly and deliberately, and they say they'll be responding quickly to feedback and real-world usage. But they're still trying to do the equivalent of building an entire country under wraps and then telling people, "come live here, please, it's nice." The big question will be "Why?," and impressive as the demos are, I don't see an answer to that yet.