A eulogy for the last great social network


Google delivered the news earlier this month in a blog post. The company gave multiple reasons for its decision: It found a security flaw in Google+, consumer engagement is low, and running a social site is hard. So it’s “sunsetting” Google+ for consumers in August, 2019. (The service will continue for business customers.)

Over its 20-year history, Google has succeeded wildly with products in a great many businesses: Search, Gmail, YouTube, Android and others. But it tends to fail with products that involve public social interaction. In fact, it’s earned a reputation as something of a social site serial killer. High-profile failures include Orkut, Buzz, and Wave. But even more obscure social properties also got “sunsetted” by Google: Spaces, Profiles, Wildfire, Jaiku, Schemer, Lively, Hello, Dodgeball, Aardvark, Friend Connect, Latitude, Talk, Helpouts and others.

Google added social features to its Google Reader RSS product five years ago. Then the company killed it. Its blogging platform, Blogger, still exists. But it sure doesn’t feel like a strategic priority.

In truth, it’s likely that Google+ has been a dead social network walking since 2014. Since then, Google has stripped it for parts and terminated some of its best features.

In recent years, senior executives even stopped using it. Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s last post on Google+ was in March of 2016. When Pichai wants to post something, he turns to Twitter. So why wait this long to kill what is clearly a burden and embarrassment to Google? The answer is that Google+ still had some very devoted fans. But why?

The halcyon days

The year 2011 was a year of radical change and uncertainty in Silicon Valley. Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs died that year. Facebook was preparing its IPO. And Eric Schmidt, who had served as Google CEO for a decade, was replaced by co-founder Larry Page.

Google faced a crisis. Facebook seemed to be eating the world—Google’s world. Facebook’s rapid rise was a harbinger of a future where Facebook might challenge Google’s dominance in online advertising and the future of mobile advertising.

Google+ represented a complete reversal of Google’s social strategy. Under Schmidt, the stated strategy was to build social into existing Google properties, by adding sharing features and a plus-one button to everything. Page turned the old strategy inside-out. Instead of adding social to Google services, the company would add Google services to a new social network.

Leading the project was former Microsoft executive Vic Gundotra. Together, Page and Gundotra essentially forced many other Google teams–and many Google users–kicking and screaming into Google+ integrations of every description.

The centrality of Google+ was best expressed by senior VP Bradley Horowitz. In 2012 he told Wired’s Steven Levy that “Google+ is Google itself. We’re extending it across all that we do—search, ads, Chrome, Android, Maps, YouTube—so that each of those services contributes to our understanding of who you are.”

In Page’s first week as CEO, he issued an edict commanding that 25% of every Google employee’s bonus would be directly tied to the company’s success in social. Page’s idea was with such an incentive, employees would not only want to create innovative social features, but they’d also convince their family and friends to try new Google social services, including and especially the forthcoming Google+ social network.

Google+ opened up for invitation-only access in June 2011. In its early days, it attracted an optimistic collection of disaffected Facebook users, miscellaneous Twitter refugees, photographers, and Google superfans. Above all it proved alluring to aspiring influencers seeking to grab an early lead on a new social network which many thought would be the Next Big Thing.

And the site was better than Facebook in almost every way. The character maximum for Facebook posts back then was 500–less than twice what Twitter allows today. Google+ posts let you type up to 100,000 characters. You could write a novel in a post.

Pictures posted on Facebook then were compressed to the point of actually ruining them. Google+ photos looked like the originals. Photographers flocked to Google+.

At the time, Facebook allowed you only to “friend” people, which is to say you couldn’t follow them unless they followed you back. Google+ let you “follow” people, like Twitter.

The first version of Google+ allowed your stream to refresh automatically. Many users kept it open on their desktops to watch the posts go by as they worked all day.

The integrations were amazing. You could receive posts or comments in Gmail, and post from Gmail to Google+. And people could email you from within Google+ without ever knowing your email address.

Hangouts and Hangouts on Air played live in posts, and people could comment on Hangouts in progress. The recordings of these Hangouts continued to live on as video posts.

Hangouts were a signature Google+ feature, later spun out.

You could recommend a restaurant on Google+, and have that recommendation show up in Google Maps.

Because of the integrations—and because of that high-quality Google search—Google+ became the best tool available for lifelogging. Even now, it’s trivial to find anything you’ve ever posted by searching.

The most innovative feature was Circles. Well before Facebook enabled groupings of people into “family,” “friends” and so on, Google+ let you create “Circles” of people and then share those circles. You could recommend groups of people, and others could follow your whole Circle. Managing Circles involved a beautiful, animated drag-and-drop interface created by Andy Hertzfeld, one of Apple’s original Mac software wizards.

These and other advantages were minimized when Facebook copied most of the best features of Google+. Facebook added following, people categories, and longer character maximums, and improved the quality of photos. But of course, Facebook continued to dominate social networking on the strength of one “feature” Google+ never had: Lots and lots of people.

Circles was an early standout Google+ feature for organizing and sharing the people you followed.

Always controversial

In its golden age, Google+ was the most rewarding of social networks for heavily engaged, all-in users. If you spent hours each day crafting posts, writing comments, clicking plus-ones, and managing and sharing Circles, you could grow your follower count by hundreds or thousands of people each month.

For casual users, though, it was the least rewarding network. Thousands or millions of users gave Google+ a try, only to conclude in a day or two that it was a “ghost town.”

For Google+ devotees, the noise level and engagement was overwhelming, with posts routinely achieving the maximum 500 comments and getting shared thousands of times. Because those comments had effectively no limit in size, getting through an active conversation required a lot of time and effort.

For fans, Google+ seemed to answer all the complaints everybody had about other social networks. Facebook spammed users with misleading and annoying advertising. Google+ didn’t even have advertising.

On Twitter, trolls and haters shamed people into silence and off the network. Disruptors were easily terminated on Google+—especially in recent years, when a single click let you delete, report, and block a commenter.

Search on Twitter and Facebook were (and are) terrible, whereas on Google+ it’s always been great.

Back in the day, to use Google+ was to gain exclusive access to what’s now called Google Photos (except the editing tools were much better then). And Hangouts! It’s a banality now, but in the early years of Google+, the Hangouts feature was the only way to carry on group video conferences live without paying a subscription fee.

Years before Meerkat, Periscope, or Facebook Live, Google launched Hangouts on Air, a live-streaming feature (like Hangouts, but also broadcast to the public live). The feature was used by President Obama and Pope Francis. But Google took years to make live streaming mobile — it could be done only on a desktop browser. So the mobile live streaming revolution passed Google by.

Die-hard Google+ fans were among the most passionate users of any service. They spent hours every day chattering away on Hangouts—mostly about Google+ itself. They had their own vocabulary and culture.

Users organized meetups known as HIRLs—”Hangouts in real life.” And there were variants on this theme. The Black Eyed Peas did what they called a “HIRC”—Hangout In Real Concert—live on stage in front of 60,000 people.

Above all, Google+ was a place to have great conversations. The strong moderation tools meant trolls and haters were easily defeated. And so conversation flourished. Google+’s devoted fans simply couldn’t understand why others didn’t “get it.”

While Facebook has long been the place to connect with people you already know, Google+ was the place to connect with strangers who share your interests. Most people, it turns out, don’t want to connect with strangers.

Journalists probably love Twitter more than any other group of people. And they probably hated Google+ more than any other group. Google+ is the opposite of Twitter. For instance it was bad for driving traffic. Users never wanted to leave the site. Google+ was also a bad place to be snarky. Every comment was controversial, and would be attacked by long-winded arguments, links, and evidence. The last thing journalists want is to confront massive pushback on every post.

The idea that Google+ was a ghost town—the clear consensus on Twitter—confused active and passionate users who struggled to keep up with the firehose of activity on their streams.

Life was good for the Google+ faithful. And then everything changed.

Gundotra left Google in April of 2014, and the company seemed to sour on the aggressive policy of forcibly integrating other Google properties into the network. This probably had something to do with YouTube. In November of 2013, Google forced YouTube commenters to have a Google+ account. YouTubers rebelled, turning their channels into anti-Google screed soapboxes.

A year after Gundotra’s departure, YouTube was de-coupled from Google+. Photos was spun out. So was Hangouts. The great unbundling began.

In the end, Google executives decided that Google+ wasn’t about following people, but passions. A subsequent redesign elevated “Communities” (subject-specific areas where lots of people could join and post on a narrow topic) and “Collections” (subject specific categorization for an individual user’s posts, which enabled you to follow someone but opt out of their food pics). And they neutered Circles, and killed the sharing of Circles.

As Google+ was being turned into a shell of its former self, the world’s spammers began noticing Google+ and flocking to it. Despite all its AI Kung Fu, Google was never quite able to deal with the spam problem. Most of the Communities on Google+ have been taken over by spammers. The problem is even worse in post comments. Half the spam isn’t flagged. And half the flagged comments aren’t spam.

And so we say goodbye

Most Google+ fans I know don’t mourn its closure as much as they mourn the loss of Google+ circa 2014.

Imagine a social network where geeks have higher follower counts than celebrities. Where there’s no advertising. Where trolls get crushed and ordinary people have a voice. Where smart people gather for long, detailed and interesting conversations. Where most streams aren’t algorithmically filtered. Where photographs appear at full quality. Where social networking engagement leads to actual, real-life friendships.

Imagine a social network that strikes fear into Facebook, and forces them to improve the site for their users.

It’s all hard to imagine. But for about three years, this was Google+.

Google+ is dead. But the best version of the site died in 2014. We should all mourn its loss.

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