On Tuesday, Google launched Google+, a new social networking project, which may bring some serious competition to Facebook. At first, the company invited an select posse of tech insiders to test it out, but then on Wednesday users were allowed to invite any of their friends. As the exclusive party turned into an Internet free-for-all, Google slammed on the brakes, with VP Vic Gundotra announcing, "We've shut down the mechanism for the night. Insane demand. We need to do this carefully."
For the latecomers who didn't make it to the party on time, don't be too bummed out. Now might be a good time to figure out what Google+ is actually all about, and make up your mind whether you want to join when Google reopens the floodgates, and the invitations start pouring in again.
What is Google+, exactly? How is it different from Facebook?
No matter how much Google tries to deny that it's competing with Facebook, everyone is already drawing comparisons.
Google+ has three main components: Circles, Hangouts, and Sparks.
Circles works a bit like Facebook groups -- you can put the people you know into different Circles, like "family," "college friends," "co-workers," etc. Google distinguishes itself from Facebook in that you can choose how much to share with each Circle, unlike Facebook, where you have to share everything with all of your "friends."
Hangouts is probably the most exciting part of Google+. In a nutshell, it's video conferencing with your friends, up to 10 at a time. Facebook doesn't have this feature, and Skype doesn't work with that many people.
The third feature, Sparks, has gotten the least press attention so far, but it's an interesting concept. You pick your interests -- whether they be vegan cooking or belly dancing -- and Sparks puts together relevant articles, blog posts, and videos for you to read and share.
Like Facebook, you can post status updates, photos, and links. "+1" is Google's version of the Facebook "like," but it's really the same thing, since you can't "-1."
Facebook killer? Or another Google flop?
So far, Google has an abysmal track record with social-networking projects -- remember Google Wave? Then Google Buzz, which fizzled more than it buzzed? Or how about Orkut? (Ork-what? Yeah, we don't remember either - though it was a hit in India and Brazil.)
This time, though, Google is being cautious. Read the second half of Gundotra's announcement. She says, "For any who wish to leave, please remember you can always exit and take your data with you by using Google Takeout. It's your data, your relationships, your identity."
Not the message you'd expect from a company that's ostensibly trying to get as many people to join as possible, but it indicates that Google is learning from the number of times its projects have been brought down by privacy concerns. The on-and-off invitation releases are also a good strategy for raising the hype and getting more people curious.
The ultimate irony, though, is that social-networking sites only work when everyone is on them, so for the meantime, the place where Google+ is being most discussed is -- yep, you've got it -- Facebook.Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly.