Google+ continues to make news, with an admitted ten million subscribers in what’s still a closed trial and with buzz that’s enough to drown out competing reactions to the service. There’s no question that Google+ is a true competitor to Facebook, and while Facebook is far from irrelevant we can at least see a path whereby it might become the next MySpace. Twitter, of course, is in even greater jeopardy.
I think the big contribution of Google+ in social networking is the notion of “circles”, which is actually the way my open-source project ExperiaSphere does social communication. A circle is essentially a community of personas, which are in turn virtual identities that people adopt for a given social context. You behave differently as an employee versus family member versus casual friend, and what Google+ does is to let you define different sharing rules for each of these. Presumably this discrimination of behavior by social role will extend into how you can manage communications through Google+ as well, though again that’s not yet clear.
Outside of the strict “social” world, the big question is whether social communications built around a social network can actually take hold and change the way that users connect to each other. The chances of this happening through a vehicle like Google+ is enhanced because of the self-socializing nature of services like it. People get onto social networks because their friends are there. People communicate primarily among friends, so if you pull a friend pool into Google+ you create a community that likely involves much of your inter-calling. In addition, Google can easily link Google+ with Google Chat, Voice, etc. That means, for example, that they could allow you to out-call into the PSTN, in-call from the PSTN, and accommodate those who either aren’t on Google+ or who can’t currently respond to its own in-service communication. That combination reduces the barrier to adoption that arises when users of a communication service find they frequently can’t use it to reach who they need to reach.
The implications of this are clear. A major social communications shift, whether to Google+ or to Facebook/Skype, would reduce the value of voice services. Many operators already offer data-only connectivity, and it’s very possible that users would drop their traditional voice or at least see it as having reduced value, encouraging a price war. We would first see high-usage data plans coupled with low-minute voice plans, for example, instead of the current other-way-around practice. That would impact carrier revenues quickly, and offloading text/SMS to social messaging would be even easier.