Will Google+ bring relevance to social networking?

Google’s latest offering may finally bring relevance to social networking. Google+ Circles let people target content to subsets of their social graphs.  No more blurting out your weekend escapades to bosses or making friends’ eyes bleed with war-and-peace posts about dm_folder implementation?  Faaabulous!

Official Google Blog: Introducing the Google+ project: Real-life sharing, rethought for the web.

This isn’t just about hiding potentially embarrassing facts from prospective employers; it’s about targeting content to the audiences that are most likely to find it interesting. Current social media systems like Twitter and Facebook don’t get this. With Twitter in particular, I try to work around it by having a half dozen Twitter accounts. I restrict who I follow and what I post by account based on theme–personal, professional, gaming, etc. Hacks like this make for more work and are prone to mis-posts; it’s as discouraging to posting as wading through live-tweeted baseball games or diaper anecdotes are to reading.

Identity is also an issue as services like Facebook and LinkedIn expose our real-life names to the virtual world, something I experience more acutely because of this eponymously-named blog and professionally-oriented Twitter account.  I can’t prevent noise in my professional channel no matter how clever and diligent I am when less savvy friends and relatives can’t remember to use my personal non-eponymous identity for personal messages. Social search, realtime results, and consolidated logins will make this everybody’s problem in a few years.

Google’s social networking track record isn’t great; i.e., Orkut, Buzz, and Wave. It looks like Google+ doesn’t suffer from the lack of look-and-feel sophistication that may have hampered earlier efforts, and features like Circles address some of the fundamental design flaws in established products. However, the better product doesn’t always win, and Google will have to convince people to leave existing services. That’s a Catch 22 because the value of a network depends on its size, and it’s compounded because members of those networks don’t understand issues of identity, privacy, and relevance.

Call me cynical, but I think the odds are stacked against Google+. How many people realize the value of regular backups before losing everything to crashed disks or lost laptops? Those same people won’t realize why leaving Facebook for Google+ makes sense until they lose jobs or spouses for lack of caring. Please, Google, prove me wrong.

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