What's the News: To much fanfare, Google has released a preview version of Google+, their long-anticipated move into the social-networking space dominated in the U.S. by Facebook, whose meteoric growth challenges Google's dominance over the Web itself. The new service lets users send messages and pictures to each other, like Facebook, but puts more emphasis on grouping and communicating with different groups of people, as with email or in meatspace (i.e., the real world). The two consensus early reactions (from the small group of people who have access) are that the service is mostly smooth and functional, a welcome change after Google's social flops Buzz and Wave; and that it sure looks a heck of a lot like Facebook. Will that be enough to challenge Facebook, whose enormous base of users have uploaded much of their lives to one social network and may not want to invest time in another? How It's Like Facebook:
Profile pages that include info about you
A "Stream" of information incoming from contacts you choose, very much like Facebook's News Feed
The homepages look very similar: top-level navigation tabs along the top, lower-level navigation menu on the left, Stream/News Feed down the middle, tools and widgets on the right
How It's Not Like Facebook:
Google+'s Circles feature encourages you to create different groups to communicating with. Much of the discussion on the site seems to happen in large but not public groups. (The tool for putting people into Circles---the very un-Google-like production shown above---has drawn lots of praise from around the Web. I personally find it to be overly cute and swooshy, though it is entertaining that the Circles look, incongruously, like rotary-dial phones. The same thing can be accomplished in other parts of Plus by just mousing over someone's name and checking boxes for the appropriate Circles.)
One-way adding: you can add someone to your Circles (i.e., add their comments to your Stream) without them adding you to their Circles. In Facebook, friendship must be two-way. In this, Google+ is more like Twitter.
It has an impressive group video chat feature called Hangout.
Small but potentially important and/or telling difference: when you look at someone's Plus profile, you can see how many people they're following (i.e., how many people are in their Circles), but you can't see how many people are following them. Facebook can sometimes seem like a race to inflate your friend tally, which raises the question of what a "friend" really is. This may be why Nona Willis Aronowitz says Facebook says "Love me! Love me!" whereas Plus says "People I love: Let's chill." (Update: In a tweak to the service, Google changed things so that you can see how many followers each user has.)
Google is making it easy to export all of your data, ready for uploading to similar services like, say, Facebook. But Facebook offers no such reciprocal favors. Google's commitment to openness---if you love something, set it free---does seem more confidence-inspiring than Facebook's all-your-friends-are-belong-to-us approach.
While Google has a history of botching social products, Facebook is known for its history of making site changes that raise privacy concerns and then going half-way back. This is largely why some people might be happy with a Facebook clone that's not Facebook, as illustrated by xkcd: