Can You Fall in Love with a Social Network?
Pitched internally as an answer to the competitive threat posed by Facebook, project “Emerald Sea” eventually became Google+. I remember Joseph Smarr and Chris Messina writing back in 2011 something to the effect that ‘sharing on the web was broken,’ which was what first gave me the sense that this team wasn’t only interested in building a Facebook killer. They wanted to use Google’s strengths in processing information to reinvent what it meant to share information on the web.
I joined Google+ within a month or so of its launch in June 2011. I’d already been on Twitter for four years and Facebook for three and was excited about how this new service combined the long-form writing of blogs with new bells and whistles for social sharing.
Circles enabled me to organize and prioritize the people I followed. Ripples provided a very sophisticated tool for seeing how people’s posts rippled through the network. Sparks strived to organize the network by topics. Oh, and it was all held together with powerful search capabilities that were quite laughable in the other networks.
I fell in love.
An Interest-Sharing Community
I wasn’t alone. Within a year, I had developed a number of great relationships with people on Google+. These weren’t the school friends I followed on Facebook or work associates I was connected to on LinkedIn. These were people I didn’t already know who shared my interest in various topics.
By early 2012, I’d come to the conclusion that Google+ was something very different from Facebook’s social network. It represented an intersection between relationships with people and connections to ideas. It was, in short, a “shared interest network.” I even put together a slide show using Google+ images to explain this idea. It went viral and people on the Google+ team told me privately that I’d nailed the essence of their network:
Google ended up embracing this direction in both its positioning and product development. I’m not saying this was because of me; I had probably just picked up on the zeitgeist of the service a bit early.
The company had begun describing Google+ as a place for sharing passions. In late 2012, it launched Communities. Then in 2015, it launched Collections, which essentially mimicked categories on blogs.
It was a logical strategy. Facebook had already taken the market for staying in touch with family and high school friends and the world didn’t really need the inconvenience of having to publish things to close connections on two such networks.
Having missed that opportunity, the shared interest network was the only real market segment that was even viable for Google. The media didn’t understand this new market, but the company had a great product offering. Had they kept focused on it, I am convinced that there was a path to a real market opportunity here. Being at the intersection of people and interests extends Google’s dominance over the “interest graph” from Search and as they have demonstrated, there is plenty of willingness to advertise around what people find interesting. Had they combined that with relationships in more interesting ways, it could have been a very valuable service.
But somehow, something got in the way.
It Takes a Community
Before getting to what went wrong, it’s worth focusing on another, less obvious, factor behind the magic that was Google+ in its prime: its community.
Maybe it’s just what happens when you bring people into a big online social network and help them find others who share their interests. Or maybe it was the way Google+ echoed the original blogosphere by allowing people to share long posts and reply to those posts with equally long comments. To be honest, I’m not sure we’ll ever truly know why, but those first few years on Google+ were a time of tremendous community.
Whether it was by design or sheer dumb luck, Google had stumbled onto something quite amazing in those early years: a group of people who absolutely loved the place and the sense of community it engendered.
So, what happened? There are lots of different theories, but in my it was simply bad management.
In April 2014, Vic Gundotra stepped down as head of Google+ in response to the company’s decision to deemphasize the service as a centralizing social layer for all its offerings. David Besbris stepped in for a while and was then replaced by Bradley Horowitz. Then things get murky. There was Luke Wroblewski, whose title was never really clear, but who was responsible for driving the mobile-first design and strategy linked to the disastrous redesign of the service in November 2015. Wroblewski left without any public mention and the company simply stopped talking ly about who was overseeing the network.
These changes in management resulted in numerous twists and in Google+ strategy that, much like the layers of an archeological dig, are still visible today in the user interface. All this turmoil simply leaked the life out of the network. Employees with a strong vision and passion for the service eventually left and over time, many of its biggest user advocates simply dropped away. Over the last three years, there have been virtually no new features added to the network and it is badly overrun by spam that should be easily controllable by a company with the technology chops of Google. The service, in short, was abandoned: first by management and eventually by the community.
In September 2016, the Google+ team found a new home in G Suite in the hopes that the network might serve as a kind of Slack-like corporate intranet. Then, in early October of 2018, after an internal review of vulnerabilities in the Google+ API, the company made a surprise announcement in what seemed to be a routine blog post about corporate security: it would shut the service down for consumers in August of 2019. Then new vulnerabilities were discovered a month later and the shutdown date was pulled in four months earlier.
A Shameful Ending
Since that announcement in October, the company has demonstrated what can only be described as outright negligence over the closing of this service. The October 8 and December 10 announcements that this service is shutting down read almost like afterthoughts. Since then, there has been only one additional clarifying communication — in this case, information to third-party developers about shutting down the Google+ API.
The lack of communication with end users is shocking. It is now mid-January and we still don’t know exactly on what date the service will close. We don’t know whether our ability to download our data from Google+ will continue past April. The original announcement promised that:
Over the coming months, we will provide consumers with additional information, including ways they can download and migrate their data.Project Strobe
But the Google Takeout tool for downloading that data is still quite broken. There is no clear data format specification and the data you get from downloads is very difficult to make sense of. It also includes a huge number of duplicate images, resulting in large and unwieldy files that a number of users report they are unable to reliably download.
Most frustrating is the fact that the data on the people you follow is incredibly sparse. It includes a first name and last name and a link to a Google+ user profile web address but there is no guarantee will continue to exist after April. So, basically, our connections with others are lost. I had over 50,000 people following me on Google+. That took a lot of work to build up that following for my writing, and now it is simply gone.
In mid-December, not long after the December 10th announcement, I worked with a handful of volunteers to gather questions from the community about the shutdown process, which we compiled into a document on Google Drive. I then worked some back channels to try to get these concerns into the right hands at Google. Weeks have gone by, the April shutdown looms closer and closer, people are looking for answers about what to do with all their investments in this network, and there is still not a word of clarification from Google.
The way the company has treated its users represents a complete failure of leadership on the part of Google.
The Lesson in All This
Shutting down any product or service that end users rely on is always difficult and companies need to take a decision like that very seriously. In this case, however, we are talking about a service that would simply not exist without all the contributions made by its end users. Since 2011, I have personally contributed 5,479 posts to Google.* Imagine multiplying that kind of investment across hundreds of thousands of other people and you see the enormity of this failure and the waste of human time and energy.
In the short term, I’m moving most of my social network efforts to Twitter. Longer term, I don’t want to ever have to go through like this again — and I don’t want anyone else to either.
The main lesson of Google+ is that it’s time to stop trusting our creations and our relationships to companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in the hopes that they will do the right thing with them. They will do the right thing as long as it maps to their primary purpose, which is maximizing returns for their shareholders. When that stops being true, well, then, that assumption of trust disappears. Google+ demonstrates this problem more vividly than any product or service shutdown that I can remember.
That is why I am closely tracking what Tim Berners-Lee is doing with Solid. It’s time to liberate our data and our social ties and social contributions are an important part of that effort.
* I know that I uploaded 5,479 posts to Google+ because I have now downloaded them all through a very useful tool from Friends+Me, called Google+ Exporter. I’ve since used that tool to integrate those posts into this blog.