In 1989, a giant Russian rocket was rolled to a launch pad in Kazakhstan with a small white space-plane attached. The plane was called the Buran – Russian for "snowstorm" – and while it was a meticulously engineered machine with many distinctive qualities, the outside observer would notice only one thing: It looked almost exactly like the space shuttle, which the Americans had already been flying for eight years. The Russians had gone through the options and decided that an improved adaptation of an existing and successful model was best.
The optics were poor, however. Soon, wags were calling it the Space Shuttleski.
The Buran came to mind the other week as I logged into Google's new social network, Google+, for the first time. This is a big month for the company: After years of trying and failing to break through into the Facebook-dominated world of social networking, it seems they've finally got a winner. Their new product has attracted 10 million users in its first two weeks of business, and I offer more anecdotal evidence: Dozens of my friends hopped on as soon as they could, and unlike the ghost towns of Google networks past, my Google+ feed is hopping with activity.
And how would one describe Google+? Well, there's the catch. It looks exactly like Facebook. Not only that, it works an awful lot like Facebook – with some key differences – and feels an awful lot like Facebook.
This poses a bit of a stumper. Facebook is a world-straddling, life-structuring, Hollywood-worthy service with 750 million users. (This would make it the third-largest country in the world.) Every precept and platitude about the power of networks tells us that the bigger they get, the more useful they are and the harder they become to dislodge. Can Facebook's first real threat come from a site whose main draw is being mostly like Facebook?
Opening Google+ is an exercise in deja-vu. In the centre of the screen is a newsfeed, just like Facebook's. On the left, a list of friends. Along the top, a menu. The process of posting, reading and leaving comments on items not only mimics Facebook, it takes many of its user-interface cues from it as well.
Where Google+ diverges from Facebook is its approach to the troublesome concept of online friendship. Facebook's original premise was centred on one-size-fits-all "friendship." Once two people agreed to be "friends," that was that: Both had access to each others' photos, musings and irritating personal tics. The limitations of this approach soon became evident: Hell is other people.
Google's approach involves placing people you want to follow into "circles" you create – friends, acquaintances, colleagues, frenemies, nemeses or, should you desire one, an I'll-pretend-to-listen-to-you-but-really-won't circle. You can share different things with different circles, and listen to incoming chatter from only the circles you choose. Better still, other people can see that you've added them to your circles, but don't know which circle you've added them to. ("No really, I'm not just pretending to listen to you. Sorry, what?")
The "circles" concept is being widely trumpeted as Google's secret weapon here, but I have my doubts. For one thing, Facebook had already gone a long way to solving the junk-in-its-newsfeed problem, both through circle-like "lists" and, more cannily, through keeping track of the people you interact with, and whose profiles you stalk, and mostly showing their feedback. Google's "circles" strike me as fussy and high-maintenance. In general, users want a misery-free way of sharing, not an extra layer of bureaucracy.
Google+'s appeal lies elsewhere. Early adopters I've spoken to like that it's clean-looking and fresh, free of the sundry annoyances of Facebook – from the childhood acquaintances, clinging on like vestigial organs that should have been removed decades ago, to the spammy "apps" like Mafia Wars and interminable "Am I a lichen or a sea scallop?" polls. Facebook thrived as a utility – in the age of cellphones, it's the de facto phone book – but it hasn't been beloved in a while.
It's more than a little reminiscent, in fact, of the exact same complaints that made users abandon MySpace five years ago: It was gaudy, junky, grungy and annoying. Then, all of a sudden, another social network came along and ate MySpace's lunch by doing most of the same things, but with real names and a clean, respectable-looking blue-white interface.
If Google+ continues to flourish, one outcome could see it becoming Facebook's duelling clone, Burger King to its McDonalds, Pepsi to its Coke, PC to its Mac – or the Buran to its Shuttle. But the theory of networks suggests tha these won't coexist happily: One tends to be ascendant, gaining users and momentum as others languish. After all, people want to be where everyone else is. The network split will be fascinating to watch.
It's both reassuring and unsettling that Facebook is not immune to competition: Reassuring because giving a privacy-agnostic corporate leviathan a perpetual monopoly on social transaction is the opposite of reassuring. Unsettling because, if millions can pick up and leave Facebook for whiter pastures, then really, nothing is too big to fail.