Over the last six months or so I have watched as the quality of engagement here on Google+ has steadily declined. I have watched my follower count fluctuate and flatline. I have watched as people I used to engage with quite a bit here have left or dramatically scaled back their investments of time here. And yes, I have seen my own enthusiasm for investing time here wane significantly.
I ask myself why and the answers are never as simple as I would like. In the end though, I have come to the sad conclusion that the real thing that is killing Google+ is just plain bad management.
Lack of Attention
One gets the real sense that many of the people now charged with running Google+ don’t really understand what it was that once made this service so good in its early days. Indeed, one gets the sense that few of the people managing the service today even really use Google+. There are a few noteworthy exceptions like Yonatan Zunger and Leo Deegan, of course. I once made a circle with some 50+ Googlers who were once active here, and when I click on that stream, well, it feels a lot like a ghost town.
Bradley Horowitz, the VP in charge of Streams, Photos and Sharing, (which is where Google+ sits within the Google org structure) hasn’t posted here on Google+ in half a year.
Oh, and remember Luke Wroblewski, who used to manage Google+ and would send out all those updates on the redesign? Well, he hasn’t posted a single thing here in over 7 weeks (even though @lukew is quite active on Twitter). You know why? I just happened to check his LinkedIn profile, and he’s apparently no longer managing Google+. I don’t recall seeing any announcement of this change – just a sudden silence from the man perhaps most responsible for the UI makeover of Google+.
Rudderless and Un-resourced
That decision to remake the Google+ UI followed a long string of decisions going back to the separation of Photos and Hangouts, each of which have seriously hurt the service. I know there were probably some good reasons to move to the new, mobile-dominant (as opposed to “mobile-friendly”) UI, but the lack of enduser empathy from deprecating all the old functionality really was pretty staggering. Much of it hasn’t come back, and much of what has is so stripped down (e.g. Events, community moderation) that it isn’t really that usable.
As users, we have been asked to be patient and to have faith in the new strategy. Because I have been such a huge fan of Google+ for so long, that is exactly what I have done. I’ve been patient. I’ve believed. Believed that some big, cool fix was coming down the pike that would not only fix all the problems caused by the UI decision, but actually start innovating again with some cool new functionality.
Yes, we got Collections, and they actually are quite useful even if they do need a lot of work still. But that’s really about it. It’s been a couple years now and the silence is stultifying.
And finally, it hit me:
Maybe this is it. Maybe Google has significantly curtailed its investments in this network. Maybe the management squandered the scarce resources it did have on a redesign that users weren’t really even asking for. And maybe, just maybe, what we see right now is pretty much what we’re going to get.
And this is where I start to get really mad. Like many others here, I have invested a lot of personal time and energy building a following here. Like many of you, I have poured heart and soul into filling this place not just with great content, but also with a sense of community. I could have made those investments in Twitter or Facebook or reddit, but like many of you, I made them here. And now I’m starting to wonder how smart of a decision that was.
All of this is particularly raw right now because I’m starting to play around a bit with the new distributed social network called Mastodon (https://mastodon.technology/@gideonro). It’s far from perfect, but one thing that is very different is that it is open source and federated, rather than centrally owned and controlled.
There are lots of implications to this different model. For one, there is lots of competition and innovation in the works because Mastodon sits on top of GNU Social and rests within a “Fediverse” of related, and interoperable, social network platforms. They are working on solutions that make it easy to export your content from one platform to another – to prevent lock-in. Also, there is a lot of visibility on exactly what investments are being made in the platform by various contributors.
More importantly though, there is a very conscious understanding that the value of these networks is only partially the result of the software developers behind these solutions. Just as much of it lies with the end users.
In the end, this is the thing that I am most frustrated about right now with Google+. End users have made this place every bit as much as the coders and product planners behind Google+. This isn’t to in any way diminish the importance of those contributions. But what I do find frustrating is the way that Google seems to regularly dismiss the importance, and the real economic and social value, of end user contributions. This was true with Google Reader, and sadly it appears to be true with Google+.
I’m still rooting for Google+ to turn things around, of course. I have a huge soft spot for this place, given all the great learning I’ve done here with my fellow travelers. But one thing is clear: I’m losing my patience, and I don’t think I’m alone.