Technologizer

The Tragic Beauty of Google+

Google's social-network upgrade is gorgeous and imaginative. But when you're competing with Facebook, that might not be enough.

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Google likes to use the word “beautiful” a lot when describing its own products. That would be grating if it weren’t for one fact: more and more, the company is building beautiful stuff. And I’m not sure if it’s ever built anything more beautiful than the new version of its Google+ social network which debuted on Wednesday during the Google I/O keynote.

The service, which was already pretty darn slick, is now among the most attractive and engaging web apps I’ve ever seen. Streams of activity are now laid out as one, two or three columns of tiles, depending on available screen real estate, with some oversized photos spanning the whole width. (Judging from my stream, some Google+ aficionados like the old format better — they can switch back to one column — but I find the new one less claustrophobic.) The left-hand toolbar which used to hog space now disappears until you need it; throughout, the level of visual polish is high, with pixel-perfect design and subtle little animations as you click on different controls.

Google+ can now auto-hashtag your items, a feature which is useful because you can click on any hashtag and then flip through related items shared by other people, without leaving the page you’re on. When it figures out a hashtag based on words in your post, it’s neat. But in some cases, it can also analyze a photo to determine a relevant hashtag, a feat which can be downright dazzling. I uploaded a shot from Disneyland and a drawing of Superman; it correctly identified both and linked appropriately.

The photo features, already practically a service unto themselves, get a thorough makeover. In a feature which reminds me a bit of Everpix, Google+ gives you a page of “highlights” which it chooses algorithmically: shots with family members, shots with smiling people, shots which it just deems to be aesthetically pleasing. There’s an auto-enhancement feature, which would be nice, but no big whoop except that you can tell Google+ to apply it to all your photos without your intervention. And “auto-awesome” features proactively create panoramas, animated-GIF-like loops and other special photos if they notice suitable images in your collection.

Then there’s Hangouts — a new standalone app for Android and iOS that spins off Google+’s Hangouts video-chat feature into its own world, a sort of social-network-within-the-social-network. The Hangouts app does video and text chat and photo sharing, and is designed for both impromptu one-time interactions and ongoing conversations that could go on over a period of days or longer. I can imagine it appealing both to Google+ diehards and people who aren’t otherwise active on the service.

Overall, Google+ doesn’t do anywhere near as many things as Facebook, but the things it does, it does well. Once a me-too service that seemed to exist solely because Facebook posed a potentially existential threat to Google’s dominance of the web, it now has its own style and signature features. Where Facebook is rather stolid – it has its own beautification initiative going on, but feels hamstrung by its need to retain some visual consistency with its past self — Google+ is exuberant. It’s fun to use.

And yet I’m pretty positive I won’t spend remotely as much time in it as I will in Facebook.

You might have already guessed why: My friends, family and acquaintances are all on Facebook, where they add up to a bustling community I enjoy being part of.  More than any particular feature that Mark Zuckerberg and company have cooked up, it’s the people in my life that make Facebook, well, Facebook.

Over on Google+, I find some worthwhile material to peruse, but in far smaller quantities. The smattering of people I encounter hardly replicates my real-world social connections.  The conversations are less warm, personal and interesting. As a social experience, it often feels perfunctory.

I don’t, by the way, claim that any of that is Google+’s fault. In fact, at least some of it is my fault: I’m kind of an absentee landlord of my Google+ page, dropping in only occasionally and sharing items even more sporadically. You can’t complain about the quality of a community unless you try to be part of it. Also, it’s always dangerous to assume that your experience on a social network is representative — I have friends who favor Google+ over Facebook specifically because they find it more lively and personal.

Still, I don’t feel guilty about favoring the social network that feels more like an extension of my world. That’s Facebook. And since Facebook exists, I don’t have much of an incentive to pour more energy into Google+. The two services aren’t identical in particulars and emphasis — today’s Facebook seems to be built on the philosophy that everyone should share everything at all times, sometimes in an automated fashion, and Google+ isn’t like that at all — but ultimately, they scratch the same itch.

Therein lies Google+’s great challenge. Even if it’s good — even if it’s great — it’s not going to displace Facebook as the world’s primary social network. And most people don’t need a second social network. (Or at least a Facebook-like social network: Twitter, Pinterest and others that don’t take Facebook on directly can and do thrive.)

Mind you, there are worse fates than being the world’s second biggest general-purpose social network. After less than two years since Google+’s debut, Google says, 190 million people are active members. A total of 390 million take advantage of its features across Google, such as video calls in Gmail. Google+ isn’t going anywhere. But it has little mindshare among normal everyday folks, and it’s not clear what Google can do to change that. Unless Facebook implodes — hey, it’s not utterly unthinkable — Google’s service might never be more than what it is now: a beautiful disappointment.

MORE: Complete TIME Tech coverage of Google I/O 2013