The mother of all face- offs.

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page -

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.’’

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