On June 28, 2011, Google pleased geeks worldwide by unveiling their third try at social networking: Google+, or G+. While the previous attempts met with at best only mild success (Orkut is popular in Brazil but few other places, and Google Buzz remains a sideline for most), G+ has seen quick adoption and quick praise from the technological elite.

In a Google earnings call yesterday, newly re-installed CEO Larry Page live-G+’ed his remarks, including the nice tidbit that in two weeks G+ has 10 million users, and 1 billion items are being shared per day. (The math here does not exactly hold up: That would mean the average user is sharing 100 times per day. That seems excessive even to me.)

Thanks to my friend Guy Gonzalez, I scored an invite to G+ and have been playing with it for a bit.

In major respects, the functionality of G+ is identical to Facebook, and its layout is identical too. (See the screenshots of my Facebook profile and my G+ profile below, enlarge by clicking.)

G+, click to enlarge

Facebook, click to enlarge

That said, there are some features of G+ that have people jumping up and down with delight. Some of those features are real differences, others are not. (For instance, G+ is much better looking — and cleaner-looking — than Facebook, but I am not sure that is a huge difference, as part of that is just a function of when the look was designed. Facebook could refresh its look and look better than G+.)

In this article I will focus in one one specific feature of G+: Friend Circles.

Circles Make You Feel Private

The most exciting feature of G+ for many people is the ability (the requirement) to put all friends into “Circles.” This encourages you to group your friends in some way that makes sense. The interface is a simple drag and drop to create the Circles.

The first time you share something, you are asked which circles you want to share it with (you can choose “public,” which shares with everyone). That way, the photo of you sporting your new tattoo won’t show up in your boss’s stream unless you want it to.

In subsequent shares, G+ remembers your last setting, but it is very easy to add and remove circles with a mouse click.

This has given G+ users an increased sense of privacy and for the people I have talked to, this has been a huge win for G+.

However, I don’t see this as a Facebook-killer of a feature.

In the first place, it’s easy to accidentally put someone in the wrong circle, or forget who is in the circle, or share with the wrong circle. The heightened sense of privacy may paradoxically encourage unsafe (or stupid) behavior. For instance, imagine if you had “colleagues” and  “collages”  circles. You might accidentally share the scrapbook you made of Justin Bieber photos (“collage”) with your boss (“colleague”). Just having circles does not exempt us from having to take care and exercise judgment.

Furthermore, the idea of segmented friends list is a feature that is already implemented quite robustly in Facebook. It is called “friend lists.” In fact, the feature is more powerful in Facebook becuase I can control my sharing all the way down to the specific individuals irrespective of the lists they may belong to. That means I can share an update with me “family” list but exclude my daughter — so I can plan a surprise birthday party for her.

The difference between G+ and Facebook when it comes to this “segmented sharing” is that in Facebook, the feature is buried in the background.

How To Create And Use Friend Lists In Facebook

In order to use this function, first you need to set up some friend lists. In Facebook, click on “friends” and then in the upper right click “edit friends.” In the friend list that appears, there is a button (again upper right) that says “create a list.” Click it and add the people you want to your new list. I adhere firmly to the policy that all friends must be in some list, even if it is my “npk” (not personally known) list. When I made this move I had about 700 friends and it took about 45 minutes to complete the operation. From that point on it was easy because I decide for all new friends what list they go in.

At a minimum, you may want to set up a “family” list or a “work” list so you can easily exclude these groups from sensitive materials.

Once you have lists set up, it is easy to control who sees what, it just takes a few clicks.

To set a default list that you share with: Go to Account (upper right) and Privacy Settings. Click Customize Settings. You are given a list of possible items to share. Click the grey box to the right of “Posts By Me.” In the drop down menu, choose “Customize,” and THEN in the new drop down menu, choose “Specific People.” Now just start typing the name of the list you want to default to.

To specify who gets to see a particular post: There is a little grey padlock image underneath the box you type your share text in. Click it. You get a drop down that has “customize” as the last option. Choose that. Then a window opens a drop down where you can choose “specific people,” and then type in the list you want to share with.

In the screen shot below, I am sharing something with my Family list, but excluding my daughter. (It is, after all, her birthday coming.)

(Click to enlarge)

The key differences between G+ and Facebook when it comes to friend segmenting are that 1) Facebook has the feature hidden; and 2) G+ requires you to use it.

These are both things that Facebook could change easily — and I expect them to do so.

In later articles, I will look at other aspects of Google+ as I experiment with them. Let me know what questions you have and I will try to answer them.