The mother of all face- offs.
IF FACEBOOK were a country, it would be the world’s third most populous nation.
More than 750 million people have joined the social network, sharing more than four million pieces of information daily – but Facebook’s sovereignty is about to be seriously challenged.
The world’s biggest internet company, Google, is field-testing a new social network that resembles Mark Zuckerberg’s creation.
Google+ entered the social media fray on June 28, offering a new way to group contacts and share links, photos, videos and thoughts.
While only limited invitations were sent as part of the Google+ ‘‘ field trial’’, social media experts are already lauding the new service as a potential solution to ‘‘ Facebook fatigue’’.
Facebook even seemed to recognise the threat, launching video chat and group chat on its site, features also available at Google+.
Experts warn though that the social media war will be fought on more fronts than just video chat and Google+ will have to win hearts, minds and trust.
Despite its new look and features, Google+ is not the company’s first social network.
In February last year it launched Buzz, a social network attached to Gmail designed to let users share information. The service quickly gained a bad reputation after privacy flaws exposed users’ contacts.
QUT Centre of Creative Industries senior research fellow Dr Jean Burgess says Google appears to have learnt that lesson, offering greater privacy and selective sharing with Google+.
‘‘ Google has learned a lot from their problems, releasing Buzz in the middle of the night without really asking,’’ she says. ‘‘ In general, the privacy settings on Google+ are a lot more transparent and simpler.’’
After creating a Google+ profile, for example, users are asked to add contacts to categories called Circles.
Pre-named categories include ‘‘ friends’’, ‘‘ family’’ and ‘‘ acquaintances’’ but new circles can be created with any name.
While other Google+ users can see who is broadly in your circles, they cannot see what circle they or others are inside ( you may have filed them into an ‘‘ enemies’’ circle, for example).
When sharing a link, photo or thought, users can also choose to share the information with one circle, several or the public at large.
Other Google+ features include ‘‘ The stream’’ ( information shared by people in your circles), ‘‘ Sparks’’ ( favourite news topics), ‘‘ Hangouts’’ for group- video chat and the + 1 button, a recommendation feature similar to Facebook’s ‘‘ Like’’ button.
Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg says this list of features is solid but Google may need more to convince internet socialisers to leave their current hubs.
‘‘ The initial product appears weak as it has fewer features than other social networking services, but it is more than functional enough for a good consumer experience, especially for those who already use some of Google’s services,’’ he writes.
Gartenberg said he also expects Google+ to be tightly tied to its growing Android phone user base, with a Google+ Android app already available.
Burgess says Google’s biggest strength is its existing web users.
That includes more than 1.93 million Gmail users and a 20 per cent share of visits to Australian websites, according to Hitwise.
‘‘ If people remain logged into their Google account, the information about who is in their social network, what people like, who likes the same things you like, that is very powerful information in terms of behaviour,’’ she says.
RMIT University business IT lecturer John Lenarcic says the pervasive nature of Google+ could also earn it a larger audience.
Once a user signs in, a black bar at the top of the screen shows Google+ notifications, encouraging users to visit it more often.
‘‘ Google will argue that this service is more useable because you don’t have to log on to different accounts,’’ he says.
‘‘ If you have a Google account you can access all of its services from search to Google+. It’s the convenience of logging in once.’’
Google+ is not yet widely available yet, however.
Engineering director Dave Besbris explains that invitations have only been enabled for ‘‘ brief’’ periods to ensure it remains stable.
Curtin University information systems school head Dr Peter Dell says this exclusivity, while useful, is also creating extra buzz around the network.
‘‘ It’s like a nightclub making you wait in the rain for two hours to get in,’’ he says.
‘‘ The real test of Google+ will be when it goes public. In the past, they took on Hotmail and they seem to have won that battle when email was what people most wanted. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google gives Facebook a good shake.’’