The final social network I wanted to write about in this series came from Google who released its interest-based social network Google+ in December of 2011. I was excited to have the Facebook competitor upon us and it wasn’t long before I announced my intentions to leave Facebook. I even went so far as to change my profile photo on Facebook to reflect this. I would move back into Facebook a month or two later but I still feel it deserves a mention.
Move from Facebook
Leading up to the launch of Google+, Facebook found itself under attack for the way they handled their privacy features. Apart from making changes so rapidly that it was difficult for folks to analyze and adjust accordingly, Facebook had also begun to release features such as Photo Tagging that left people with an unpleasant taste in their mouths. Even though Google had a reputation for snooping email messages in Gmail for use in advertising, as caricatured by the Gmail Man, I was happy to have an alternative to Facebook.
I had hoped that Google+ would have the vast improvements over Facebook the way the latter improved over MySpace. I arrived to find that it was conceptually the same as Facebook but had minor improvements which overall gave me a more favorable opinion of it over its rival. I felt that one of the things Google had done to improve on Facebook was how it handled connecting to other users. I had previously said that I felt nothing devalued the word “friend” more than Facebook. Google+, by contrast, didn’t have friends but followers just as one would have on Twitter. I’ll be the first to admit that what you call these social network connections, be it friends, followers, or subscribers is ultimately trivial. I say this despite of all the time I spent grumbling about devaluing the meaning of the word “friend”.
The Circle of Followers
Rather than Friending people and adding them to a singular Friends List, Google+ asked you to add your connections to different circles. The logic being that one person might belong to a certain circle of friends but not another. For example, were I to add a family member I would add them to my Family circle and my Everyone circle. In this way, if I shared a post that was meant for only my family, there was a built in way for me to ensure that anything that was relevant only my family was shared only with my family.
This fixed an issue that Facebook had yet to address but that didn’t take long to change. Facebook rolled out a feature which allowed you to add people to lists so one could basically achieve the same functionality as Google+. The only problem, in my view, is that it would be a tedious task to go back through all my hundreds of friends and break them into groups. Further, it definitely felt like a feature that was simply added to the network rather than built into the design of the network as a whole. When connecting to a new follower, the first thing Google+ asks is what circles you want to add the them to. Facebook, on the other hand, simply asks if you want to connect with this new Friend and leaves it up to you to later add them to groups. A task most won’t bother with at that point.
Why I left Google+
After a few weeks, it became apparent to me that Google+ wasn’t going to be as successful as Facebook. Most of my friends were disinterested and that right there is the death knell for anything intending to be the platform I communicate with people over. I then thought about adjusting my expectations to where I would simply communicate with a group of my techie friends on Google+ where we would be away from the noise generated by the rest of my Facebook Friends. That also died away.
These days the only use one would have for Google+ is as a step between no social network connection and Facebook. For when you want to connect to someone but don’t want them to connect to anything as personal as Facebook. It’s a lot like someone asking you for a Pepsi and you asking if RC Cola is okay which, for the record, RC Cola is never okay. In a move that left YouTube users tasting RC Cola, Google had integrated Google+ into the YouTube comments section effectively de-anonymizing those who comment. Perhaps mine is an unpopular opinion, but given how unpleasant the comments on YouTube can be, I don’t mind Google forcing its users to have the courage of their convictions when they post. Then again I used to like RC Cola so what do I know?
Back to That Familiar Place
As the graphic for this post suggests: Google+ bombed. What I failed to realize in those days was that the success of Facebook against MySpace wasn’t that people simply wanted to flock to the next social network that sprung up, but that MySpace has stagnated and refused to evolve in the direction it’s users had wanted. The success of Facebook in that battle was as much to the credit of everything MySpace did wrong as much as what Facebook did right. Facebook listened to its users and took the threat of Google very seriously. From what I’ve read, Mark Zuckerberg initiated a lockdown and had his employees bring the features of Facebook that were lacking up to par with Google+. With no significant amount of user experience dissatisfaction to speak of apart from the privacy controversy, people had no reason to want to leave Facebook for anything else.
In retrospect, perhaps not moving to Google+ was the right decision. Google has historically had a dismissive attitude with their products they feel have grown slightly stale. They have shut down much loved apps such as Reader, Picasa, Buzz, and many more on basically a whim. I, for one, would hate to invest so much of myself into a social network only to be told I have 90 days to find an alternative because Google would be pulling the plug. Not to mention the odious methods Google has used to inflate Google+’s numbers, such as automatically creating profiles for all Google accounts, has led to users loathing the search giant. Though I have kept my Google+ account open, I begrudgingly returned to Facebook where I remained until mid-2016.